Business leaders: Council pressuring Milwaukee health commissioner to pass mask mandate

Business leaders: Council pressuring Milwaukee health commissioner to pass mask mandate

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MILWAUKEE, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Business leaders said passing a new mask mandate would have a "polarizing effect" on the Milwaukee community but allege the city's top public health official is being pressured into doing so.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce sent a letter to Mayor Tom Barrett on Wednesday, April 12, applauding the steps Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson took to mitigate COVID-19 this year.

In the letter, MMAC alleges Johnson is facing pressure to impose a new mask mandate.

"There's pressure from the public and also from the Common Council to go back to one-size-fits-all mandates and orders," said Steve Baas, senior vice president of governmental affairs for MMAC.

Tim Eichinger, co-founder and brewer at Black Husky Brewing, was one of more than 30 local business leaders who signed the letter supporting Johnson.

"She started here in February, and I've had many, many interactions with her, which in and of itself says a lot about her. She's a very active person. She's out in the community. She's been to vaccine clinics. She's been very active on Zoom calls to keep us informed in our industry. She's even been in the tap room, having a beer," Eichinger said.

When asked about the allegations of pressure from council members, Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic sent CBS 58 the following statement:

"I’m concerned about the thousands of Milwaukee students entering classrooms within days while we remain in extreme transmission purple level as a city. Many of our students are unvaccinated due to their age. We need to be doing all we can to stop the spread of this disease and protect children. I want Milwaukee to be the healthiest city around so that we can all succeed."

Dimitrijevic, who chairs Milwaukee's Public Safety and Health Committee, cited information showing more children are being hospitalized from COVID-19 and experiencing long-term side effects from the virus.

The letter from MMAC also argues that a new public health order would be "largely unenforceable," and would make Milwaukee "a regulatory island" that would lead people to spend their money instead in nearby suburbs.

Mayor Tom Barrett said he's recommending masks in crowded places, but he agreed the city would have challenges enforcing a new mask mandate. When CBS 58 asked whether he wants to see another emergency health order, Barrett said his focus now is trying to create a program in which city employees are either required to either get vaccinated or tested regularly.

Barrett is continuing to advocate for people to get vaccinated and vowed to follow the science.

"This is in many ways, again, an unprecedented situation just trying to deal with this. We want life to get back to normal. We want our kids in the classroom. We want businesses to be working, and we want people to be healthy," Barrett said.

Eichinger, too, said he wants to see the city continuing to follow the science.

"If the science says, 'We need a masked mandate, we will gladly do a mask mandate.' But right now, that's not the direction we're giving getting from the CDC," he said.

Baas wants the city to focus on getting people vaccinated to help keep its messaging consistent.

"I think if we put some of these other mandates in place, it actually may provide a disincentive for people to go out and get vaccinated because they will question whether vaccines are the best way out," he said.

Johnson declined CBS 58's request for an interview on Thursday, August 12, but said in a statement she appreciates the businesses who signed the letter. Johnson said she will continue to work closely with business owners to keep staff and customers safe.

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