MONROE — The City of Monroe Public Safety Committee is holding an emergency meeting at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 15, to discuss and take possible action on "measures the city may take in regards to public safety during COVID-19."
Chairperson Brooke Bauman called for the meeting and is inviting Monroe residents to attend via WebEx video conference, by phone or in person at City Hall, 1110 18th Ave., or to contact her and other alders with their ideas. Details on how to join the meeting are here.
"All of our meetings are open to the public," said Bauman, who also chairs the city's COVID-19 ad-hoc committee.
Until now, the public hasn't shown much interest in the city's COVID-19 response. Bauman said only a handful of people have contacted her about it since the pandemic hit Wisconsin in March.
Then, over the weekend, news of the meeting and a potential citywide mandate to wear face masks circulated on Facebook.
The mention of masks — already a politically and emotionally charged topic — triggered a debate. The comments for and against came pouring in. Bauman said suddenly she heard from over 50 people in a matter of hours.
But masks are only part of the discussion, Bauman said.
"Everyone is really focusing on restrictions and what people won't be allowed to do instead of, 'What can we do?' And maybe a mask (mandate) is part of that, but it's not what it's all about," she said.
She's been brainstorming ideas to bring to the meeting that promote health safety and physical distancing during the pandemic, like outdoor hand-washing stations, more outdoor seating, outdoor access to census workers, creative solutions for grocery and takeout delivery that help limit contact and promoting the city's disc golf course.
Bauman requested the emergency public safety committee meeting this week so that any recommendations the committee makes can go directly to the next common council meeting Monday, July 20. Other members of the public safety committee are Donna Douglas, Josh Binger and Kelly Hermanson.
Even if the committee decides on nothing, she said, "at least then we're on the record having discussed (the issues)." Ultimately what she's aiming for is a "public platform for people." The city's COVID-19 ad-hoc committee has run out of ideas and is at a "standstill."
Seeking fresh ideas is partly what prompted her call for the meeting. Another was a conversation she had over the weekend with Sam Schumacher, a 30-year-old Monroe resident who advocates wearing masks and asked her to bring the topic to city alders to discuss. She agreed, then asked for the broader discussion on COVID-19 safety measures.
After their conversation, Schumacher posted publicly to Facebook urging people in Monroe to ask city alders to enact a mask mandate.
Schumacher and his wife welcomed a baby in May and "that's added to our sensitivity," he said later by phone. The couple had to take precautions and limit visits during and after her pregnancy due to COVID-19.
But, "I've been really trying to think of everybody else. ... It's about communal spread. I want to be considerate of everybody."
Schumacher sees mandatory masks as a science-backed, reasonable "happy medium" to help protect the community from viral spread without shutting down businesses again.
"I see other towns taking these measures. Right now we don't have hundreds of cases, but we don't live in a bubble. Is a mask really so cumbersome that you can't do this for a short amount of time?" he said.
Some agreed and said so on Schumacher's Facebook post, which attracted over 500 comments.
"I support a conscientious and thoughtfully drafted mask mandate," wrote Genevieve L. Kundert of Monroe. "Considerate verbiage is crucial. Practical application is everything. There are always legitimate exceptions to a rule, and there are always those who will attempt to circumvent a law purely for their own convenience. We need to address both of these eventualities in any mandate we issue for the City of Monroe."
Many vehemently disagreed.
"NO TO MANDATORY MASKS!!" one woman commented. Another wrote that she respects six-foot physical distancing and those who choose to wear a mask but that she won't wear one: "God is my protector against Covid 19 not a mask Amen."
Some complained a mandate is a violation of civil liberties and individual rights — "What freedoms will you take away next 'for the safety' of others?'" — or took out their anger on Bauman, calling her names, suggesting that she is a communist or should be voted off the council.
Bauman responded that she wants to hear from everyone and doesn't have an agenda.
"I've never seen so many people fighting on social media than because of COVID," she said later. "We have a lot of people arguing with each other. Unfortunately arguing on social media doesn't really get things done."
"I let everyone voice their opinion. I haven't said my opinion. I'm really receptive. ... I'm trying to give everyone an option to express their opinions. That is their right."
Some Facebook commenters gave input on masks based on personal experience.
Stephani King, owner of two retail businesses downtown, described working a booth at an indoor antique mall recently in Illinois, where masks are mandated statewide when six-foot distancing can't be maintained.
Wearing a mask can trigger her PTSD and panic attacks so the six-foot distancing exception at the mall "was a huge help to me," she wrote.
"Thanks to their deep counters, and their register setup I was able to maintain the distance, and avoid having to explain PTSD and panic attacks and how they make it impossible to keep a mask on. It was also nice to have signs reminding customers to follow that 6 ft guideline. Everyone through that day was respectful of that, whether they wore a mask or not."
She later wrote to the Times via private message, "I wouldn't have been able to have covered a full shift without the mask exception when the 6 ft distance is maintainable."
Within hours of the announcement of this week's emergency public safety meeting on COVID-19 measures, Monroe resident Timm Burns had drafted an email to all city alders voicing his support for mandatory masks. He is 64 years old and diabetic so at higher risk of dying from the viral infection.
He's been able to continue working in his office at the Green County Justice Center, where he works as family court commissioner, but he's had to stop teaching karate for the city Parks and Recreation Department — a program he's led for nearly 30 years — and won't be attending his son's wedding in Colorado this fall due to the exposure risks associated with traveling.
Now he's worried about even running errands.
"I am finding it harder and harder to bring myself to shop in Monroe," he wrote in his email to alders. At a local hardware store where no one was wearing a mask, he asked a cashier why she wasn't wearing one and she told him it was her choice. "I didn't argue it, but how is it 'her choice' to expose me to a potentially deadly disease? I hear people arguing about how wearing a mask infringes on their liberty. What about MY liberty and MY right to life?"
Later, in a phone call, Burns said, "Masks are, from the medical people I've talked to, the simplest way we can get this under control. It baffles me why people see this as a liberty issue."
He frequently hears people say they won't wear masks because they don't see a personal risk of infection.
"I really don't understand that attitude, especially in a small town where you run into your neighbors and everybody knows everybody," he said.
The scientific evidence for masks has evolved since the beginning of the pandemic. Widespread mask use to protect others is now recommended based on evidence including recent studies of epidemiologic data that show face coverings are effective at slowing spread of COVID-19. Green County Public Health launched a "Mask Up Green County" campaign this month to promote, educate on and provide access to face coverings.
Tuesday was the first day in nearly two weeks that Green County did not report new confirmed cases of COVID-19. Seven active cases are reported for the county, with 103 recovered. Green County has had one death from COVID-19.
Green County reported three people with COVID-19 were hospitalized over the weekend but that number had dropped to one by Tuesday morning.
Lafayette County reported 84 cases as of Monday, with 10 active. Local officials are requesting the Wisconsin National Guard establish a mobile testing site in Darlington.
"Large-scale testing is a key public health strategy to identify disease outbreaks and act quickly to use other public health strategies (like) contact tracing and isolation and quarantine," the Lafayette County Health Department said in a July 10 release. The goal is to "slow the spread of COVID-19 making it possible to safely reopen our local economy while conserving the progress we have made to save lives."
Details of the mobile testing site "will be announced soon." In the meantime, the health department is directing residents to a community drive-thru testing event 10-6 p.m. July 22 along Harding Place in Cuba City.
Green County residents without symptoms who want to get tested are directed to the nearest community testing site at Alliant Energy Center in Madison. The National Guard reported Monday that nearly 60,000 people had been tested at the site since May.