BRODHEAD — In an example of growing tension and volatile emotions during this coronavirus pandemic, a shopper's anger over a grocery store worker's mask last week led police to cite the shopper.
The elderly man reportedly threatened the Brodhead grocery employee for improperly wearing a face mask.
Brodhead police were dispatched at about 3 p.m. June 28 to Piggly Wiggly, 1604 1st Center Ave.
According to police reports, the unarmed 77-year-old rural Orfordville man "had threatened he was going to go home and retrieve his gun in order to shoot an employee of the Piggly Wiggly because their face mask was below their nose."
The man "told police he was tired of his life being threatened because people are not wearing face masks" and "requested police arrest the employee for attempted homicide."
Police cited him for disorderly conduct under city ordinance, at the employee's request.
Mike Zahn, manager of the Piggly Wiggly, said he was not at the store that day.
All employees are required to wear masks and customers are encouraged to wear masks, Zahn said. In this case, the employee's mask had "slipped down below his nose."
Green County Public Health launched a "Mask Up Green County" campaign this week to promote, educate on and provide access to face coverings. Widespread mask use is recommended by infectious disease experts based on evidence including recent studies of epidemiologic data that show face coverings are effective at slowing spread of COVID-19.
Director RoAnn Warden said Green County is not considering a mandated mask order.
"We are asking our public to do the right thing and wear a mask," she said.
As COVID-19 cases in the Madison area surged in recent weeks, Dane County issued an emergency order requiring masks in public or indoors, except at home, for everyone 5 and older. Milwaukee is considering a similar mandate.
Dane County's order makes exceptions for some activities like eating in restaurants, so long as physical distancing measures are followed, and for people with a physical, mental or developmental condition that prevents them from wearing a mask.
Warden has firsthand experience of the strong emotions the pandemic is bringing out in people.
She said she's received complaints about groups of people in the county not following physical distancing guidelines and enraged calls and emails over her decision in late May to issue a countywide public health order that extended the governor's Safer at Home order locally. (The order was rescinded days later after county attorneys determined it was not uniformly enforceable.)
Warden is also the target, along with other officials across Wisconsin, of a federal lawsuit that claims public health orders related to the coronavirus pandemic violated their constitutional rights. The 17 Wisconsinites bringing the lawsuit include residents from Monroe and Brodhead.
Public health officials across the country and in Wisconsin have reported harassment and threats from the public.
Andrea Palm, Wisconsin Department of Health Services secretary-designee, recently told a Milwaukee television station that tensions and emotions are running high but "the science and the facts are what they are, and we should all be demonizing the virus, not each other."
Warden said she and her employees at Green County Public Health have not reported any harassment or threats to police.
"We're in a really tough spot. We're doing the job of protecting the public health and it's been very challenging to do throughout this pandemic," Warden said.
"People have very strong feelings. ... Public health doesn't operate on feelings. We operate on evidence (and) we make decisions on data."
Green County's COVID-19 activity level jumped to "high" this week, according to a state dashboard that measures case load and trajectory. As of July 9, Green County reported 105 total cases, with 95 recovered and one person who died. Green County's percentage of positive cases over the past 14 days has been creeping up, from below 1% to now over 3.5%.
Warden said this rise is in part due to increasing infections among young people gathering in groups, having celebrations and going out to restaurants and bars without taking precautions.
After several weeks of rising cases, Lafayette County's activity level has dropped down to "medium" and the trajectory of infections is falling, according to the same state metrics. The county reported 76 total cases as of July 9, with 74 recovered.