Ending Mask Mandate Could Hurt Businesses
50 organizations are lobbying Legislature to keep it. Not one group favors ending it.
Robin Janson’s business has a simple rule for customers and employees: Wear a mask. “No mask? No exceptions,” is how she sums it up.
Janson is the president of Urban Evolutions, an Appleton manufacturer of furniture and wall paneling made from reclaimed wood. The 24-year-old business has a showroom and retail store where it enforces the mask requirement to keep customers and employees safe from the COVID-19 pandemic.
So she was happy when the state Assembly abruptly set aside plans Thursday (Jan. 28) to cast a vote that, in all probability, would have immediately ended Gov. Tony Evers’ current emergency declaration and the mask order that accompanies it.
“I am relieved to hear that, for now, the statewide mask order is in place,” Janson says. “We will take this bit of good news!”
More than 50 organizations have registered to lobby against the Senate resolution to end the current COVID-19 health emergency and mask order that Evers declared Jan. 19. The Wisconsin Ethics Commission has not listed any organizations lobbying in support of the measure, which Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) authored and the Senate voted 18-13 to pass on Jan. 26.
The legislation stalled Thursday after lawmakers learned that ending the health emergency could cost the state nearly $50 million in FoodShare dollars tied to the declaration. Republicans in the Legislature are seeking a workaround that will let the Assembly pass the resolution — which would take effect without Evers’ signature.
And while many organized business interests have stayed on the sidelines, some have spoken up.
“Face coverings are a scientifically proven mitigation strategy that protects public health and, importantly, builds public confidence that businesses can be frequented safely,” stated the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce when registering its opposition to the resolution.
The Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce & Industry has also registered its opposition to the legislation.
Entertainment venues step in
Pabst operates several Milwaukee entertainment venues and spearheaded the formation of the National Independent Venue Association to seek federal pandemic relief for entertainment presenters that have been shut down since the coronavirus began spreading nearly a year ago. Pabst Theater Group helped organize support for a Milwaukee mask ordinance that took effect weeks before the first statewide mask order.
“That mask rule has helped Milwaukee to keep COVID in check,” the Pabst management stated in an email message it sent to supporters the day before the state Senate vote.
Preserving the requirement and curbing the spread of the virus could pave the way for the entertainment sector to return more quickly, the message declared. It appealed to supporters to contact their lawmakers and urge them to “vote against any legislation to repeal the mask requirement,” adding: “We just want to open our doors again.”
University of Wisconsin-Madison economist Steven Deller says that research on business activity in the pandemic has shown that one of the most important influences is consumer confidence: “Do people feel safe going out?”
Look on social media and it’s not hard to find people who make a point of staying away from businesses where customers don’t comply well with mask rules. Chad Cotti, who chairs the economics department at UW-Oshkosh, says that among those consumers, “any reduced mask compliance that could or would result from the change in policy could harm local businesses in favor of online vendors.”
The appearance of COVID-19 variants that appear to be transmitted more easily only heightens that risk, says Cotti, who is also a research fellow at the UW-Madison’s Center for Demography of Health and Aging.
“Massive spikes in transmission would reduce consumer confidence, particularly shopping locally,” he says. “So, with businesses and the economy in mind, we should be messaging the importance of mask wearing while in public, rather than the opposite.”
Sending a message
The mandate — and the state’s involvement in combating the pandemic — also makes it easier for business owners to enforce mask wearing, Cotti adds.
Janson has seen that first-hand at Urban Evolutions.
Most customers have appreciated and cooperated with the store’s mask requirement, she says, but a few take offense. Still, the store’s rule stays firm.
“Having that state mandate taps back some of those people who can be belligerent,” Janson says.
The mandate also helped create a more even playing field, she adds, as similar businesses began requiring masks on their premises more consistently. “To take that away is a concern.”
“People know it’s safe,” Janson says. “We know our employees are safe.”
Of the 30 employees at Urban Evolutions, only one or two at a time work in the retail area. “It would be pretty devastating if any one of them got sick,” she says.
Cotti says that the requirement shows that the state is engaged in dealing with the pandemic. That helps influence individual people to make “minor alterations” in their choices to reduce the spread of the virus, he says, “which collectively make a significant difference in transmission rates.”
Vaccinations are becoming more widespread, and the rate of new COVID-19 cases have been falling, he points out.
“Now is the time to be patient for another 60-75 days,” Cotti says. “Let’s be certain that we don’t suffer a meaningful setback, and instead continue forward to maximize the chances that business owners in Wisconsin can see something close to a more normal spring or summer.”
Reprinted with permission of Wisconsin Examiner.
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