Suburbs’ Policies Ignore Science, Kowalik Charges
Suburban elected officials overruling health officers on COVID-19, city official charges.
The divide between the 18 Milwaukee County suburbs and City of Milwaukee on COVID-19 public health orders is a political fight, not one based in science, says Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik.
The 18 suburban communities announced Tuesday afternoon they would drop their restrictions starting Friday, after their joint order expired, allowing bars, restaurants and gyms to open. The city’s order has no end date and will remain in effect.
“We intended to be together on the Moving Milwaukee Forward plan,” Kowalik told the Common Council’s Finance & Personnel Committee Wednesday morning.
“Some of the rationale is highly political,” said Kowalik. “We have a new County Exec so there are some power plays that are going on, to be quite honest.” Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley took office during the pandemic. Mayor Tom Barrett was not present at the Tuesday meeting, but has previously said politics were at work in the move by Kenosha and Brown counties to rescind restrictions.
Kowalik said the data doesn’t support reopening yet. She said the city is monitoring five criteria for a phased reopening and would update its order to provide guidance on those orders. The criteria include the number of cases, positive case rate trend, ability of hospitals to treat patients without crisis care, supply of personal protective equipment and contact tracing response.
Ald. Nik Kovac asked if the breakdown was occurring with the County Executive or the municipalities. “It seems like there are different philosophies on how they’re interpreting risk,” she said. “Some are being advised by their corp counsel, some by their mayor.”
“Just because the suburbs are being reckless we shouldn’t be reckless,” said Kovac.
That was echoed by Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs: “We should never use the suburbs as a barometer of what our action should be.”
But Coggs, Murphy and Ald. Scott Spiker pushed Kowalik to make the criteria, a local implementation of the Badger Bounce Back plan, public.
“I just think we need some clarity out there. I have not seen the clarity I would like,” said Murphy. “It is a reasonable proposition for businesses to ask ‘what is the goal post?'” He said the city should deploy some of the CARES Act funding to meet the goals.
Kowalik said the department started revising its order yesterday and would issue a modified order by Thursday.
She said the department would track progress on a red, yellow and green light basis.
The city’s five criteria and its progress according to a verbal report from Kowalik:
- Cases – a 14 day statistically significant downward trend or less than five percent positive rate (Status: Yellow, no statistical significance)
- Testing – 4,000 tests per day or less than five percent positive rate (Status: Red, but Kowalik said two free testing sites will improve things)
- Care – Hospital capacity to treat without crisis care (Status: Green, but Kowalik said she has heard that’s been changing in the past 24 hours)
- PPE – All hospitals have a 29 or greater day supply of equipment (Status: Yellow, 8-28 day supply)
- Contact Tracing – 100 percent of cases followed up on within 24 hours (Status: Yellow, 50 to 99 percent within 24 hours)
Kowalik said things were moving in the right direction. “I would say give us a week,” said Kowalik on the testing. “It is looking promising.” Budget director Dennis Yaccarino said increasing testing was a high priority for the mayor and the city was already adding more contact tracers.
As the committee debated the measure, Ald. Mark Borkowski issued a press release asking for the city to remove all its restrictions. “It is time to acknowledge the hard truth that the attempt to fashion a regional alternative to Governor Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order has failed. With every area order save our own set to expire in only a few days, Milwaukee businesses must no longer be placed at a competitive disadvantage as compared to their suburban peers. The time for our own order to end has come,” wrote Borkowski.
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