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Public Health Madison & Dane County explains why there's no mandatory mask policy

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MADISON, Wis. — Many people are wondering why there isn’t a mandatory mask-wearing policy in Madison. Last week, Public Health director Janel Heinrich said, “While we know masks work to help reduce the spread of the virus, a mandatory masking policy may place an undue burden on some people. People may fear racial profiling or discrimination based on wearing–or not wearing–a face covering.”

A petition that now has about 5,000 signatures is circulating in Madison asking the city to require face masks and demands that a city-funded mask distribution program be implemented with it. But not everyone believes the answer is that simple.

Madeline Hafner is an expert on racial disparities at the University of Wisconsin — Madison. Hafner said racial discrimination would be an adverse consequence of a mandatory mask requirement and is a legitimate concern among communities of color, especially for black men.

“We live in a racialized society that doesn’t afford people of color the same protection in their masks,” Hafner said. “They could be wanting to do all the right things to protect other and protect themselves but they will bear the unfair burden of the repercussions of wearing a mask.”

Hafner said there is an implicit bias that our society has when we see a person of color in a mask. She said they’re often perceived as threats, and especially right now, that added stress is making many people of color fearful of how they could be perceived if wearing a mask was mandatory, even if everyone was required to wear one.

“It’s the impact of how we respond as white people to perceiving people of color in those masks that lay that stress on them. So I think for us, we need to keep doing our own work to make sure we are not laying an extra stressor or burden on people of color,” Hafner said.

The public health department also released a memo detailing additional reasons for not implementing a mandatory mask policy.

The memo states:

“Some health conditions may keep individuals from being able to wear a cloth face covering. These might include chronic conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, autism spectrum disorder, or COPD/emphysema; wearing a face covering may be challenging, dangerous, or stressful for individuals with disabilities.In addition to medical considerations, individuals may not feel safe wearing a mask for many reasons including emotional, behavioral, and trauma experiences.”

The memo also states that socioeconomic status also plays a role in the decision.

“Potential consequences of implementing mandatory masking may include loss of wages, if the employer does not consider reasons why masking may not be an option for that individual, limiting access to certain business spaces such as grocery access, which could lead to increased food insecurity, generally requiring individuals to choose between their safety or being able to access spaces that support their ability to access basic needs.”

The memo also states that there are issues that come with trying to enforce this rule.

“The enforcement of masking requirements have resulted in violence in other parts of the country, both between police and private citizens – this is most certainly not something that we want to see in Madison and Dane County. Using local law enforcement resources to enforce face covering requirements would detract from their ability to support other safety and public service roles.Furthermore, enforcement efforts that include fines have resulted in financially penalizing individuals in a climate when many are already financially stretched.”

The petition demanding a mandatory mask policy states, “The alternative is more lock downs, the failure of beloved local businesses, and serious illness and death. Not only does wearing a mask protect oneself, but it also protects others, especially our essential workers and those who do not have the luxury to work from home.”

Dr. Jeff Pothof at UW Health said even though mask wearing is not a requirement, “From the medical perspective, the jury has rendered the verdict. If we are out in public close to other people, we need to be wearing a mask at this point.”

Although Pothof urges the community to wear a mask as often as possible, he acknowledged that the public health department’s reasons for not implementing one were “legitimate concerns.”

“I don’t think we want to persecute people who are unable to get face masks with some sort of mandatory order. But I don’t think that should be confused with the lack of benefit from the medical side to mask wearing,” Pothof said. “That benefit is clear. I think if we have segments of our community that find it difficult to acquire a mask or get a mask, the effort should really be focused on what can we do then, as a larger community, to ensure that those individuals have access to a mask just like all the rest of us do.”

Public health officials said they are working to make masks more accessible.

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