RACINE — The Safer Racine and mandatory mask ordinances have been extended through June 2021.
The discussion and adoption occurred at the meeting of the City Council on Tuesday. Aldermen Jeffrey Peterson and Henry Perez voted against the extension.
The council also voted to extend the city’s Declaration of Emergency through June 30. Only Perez voted against that motion.
In the 10 days before the meeting, 10 area residents died of COVID. The city also reported just under 6,000 cases.
Alderman John Tate II, president of the City Council, called for a more responsible Racine.
He explained that people have been gathering in groups, especially on holidays, which has led to large spikes in COVID-19 cases.
As a result, Tate said, the city has no alternative but to try to limit the spread in whatever capacity is available.
“Nobody wants to shrink business capacity,” Tate said. “But because people aren’t doing what’s necessary to stop the spread, the only option is where we can’t have them gathering — that’s all that’s left.”
“We talk about people having personal responsibility,” Tate said. “We’re here because people aren’t being personally responsible.”
Peterson and Perez questioned some of the finer details of the ordinance: Does it really make sense, they asked, to prohibit teachers from working in their classrooms, at their chalkboards, in an empty classroom, with masks on?
Peterson did not appear to think so, questioning the Health Department about that detail.
Peterson also questioned why child care facilities remain open.
Health Department Administrator Dottie-Kay Bowersox noted the schools were not closed to all personnel. Staff in charge of payroll, as one example, were allowed in the buildings.
However, of the 112 outbreaks in the Racine Health Department jurisdiction, 20 have been in public and private schools, she said. Schools top the list for outbreaks. Child care facilities, in contrast, have had seven outbreaks.
Peterson also questioned why the students and staff could not go back to school and just wear their masks.
Bowersox noted masks were only 60% to 80% effective when worn correctly. If the mask was worn below the nose, or if it did not fit snuggly against the face, if it was not kept clean, if it was carried in a student’s pocket instead of on their face, the effectiveness percentage dropped.
Perez, too, questioned some of the details of Safer Racine. He pointed out that churches could hold a religious service with 50% capacity but any other function was limited to 50 people.
Stephan Kurdas, the coordinator of laboratory services at the Health Department, explained that there may be activities at a special-occasion function that would not occur at a service.
For example, a wedding reception, which are sometimes held at church facilities, could potentially have eating and drinking, a high-risk activity for COVID transmission.
The bottom line, though, is that special-occasion functions would be limited across the board, without regard to whether the event was faith-based.
Health Department presentation
The vote on the ordinances came after a lengthy presentation by the Health Department that conveyed the message that COVID-19 cases were still on the rise.
The United States has more than 13 million confirmed cases, up 8.4% in the past seven days, with total cases up by more than 164% since Oct. 20. There are contributing factors to the increase, such as the weather: As the weather turns colder, people spend more time indoors.
Also, September to January is a timeframe with one holiday after another, from Labor Day to New Year’s, and spikes in COVID-19 have consistently occurred after a holiday.
According to Bowersox, the real problem is that people are ignoring the guidance of public health officials.
“We’re simply not staying at home,” Bowersox said. News programs over the Thanksgiving holiday showed people crowded into airports and airplanes.
The problem is not only that people are sick and some are dying, but the sheer number of sick people threatens to overwhelm the health care system
Wisconsin is reporting a 217% increase in positive cases since Oct. 20.
Bowersox said 90% of Wisconsin’s 72 counties are categorized with “critically high” case activity, defined as 1,000 cases per 100,000 in population.
Safer Racine changes
Bowersox explained the purpose of Safer Racine was to reduce the potential for exposure to COVID-19 by decreasing interactions that have the greatest risk of transmission, and to conserve limited public health and safety resources.
Therefore, the ordinance restricts interactions at facilities and businesses with the highest rate of outbreaks: long-term facilities, schools and places where people eat and drink.
For example, at long-term care facilities, group activities and dining have been prohibited. All schools in the Health Department’s jurisdiction have been ordered closed through Jan. 15, although that order is being challenged in court.
Child care centers have strict guidelines for operation. Interactions between classrooms of children have been prohibited, and the number of children has been limited to 15 per classroom, to name a few.
Safer Racine also limits capacity in businesses or for events where eating and drinking take place because people take off their masks, increasing the likelihood of exposure.
This story will be updated.