Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

It’s Johnson Vs. Dimitrijevic On Mask Mandate

Health commissioner and alderwoman at odds over whether city should have mask mandate.

By - Sep 30th, 2021 02:04 pm
Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson and Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic. Johnson image provided, Dimitrijevic photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson and Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic. Johnson image provided, Dimitrijevic photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A broad coalition of 12 nonprofits seeking to have a Milwaukee mask mandate reinstated has found support from at least one Common Council member, but also opposition from Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson.

Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic, chair of the Public Safety & Health Committee, wants to see Johnson use her emergency health authority to bring the mask mandate back.

“Who is going to look back and say we did too much? I think we are going to look back and say we didn’t do enough,” said the alderwoman. She is supporting a letter sent by the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, Voces de la Frontera and nine other organizations.

Johnson, on Thursday morning, gave her regularly scheduled COVID-19 briefing to the health committee. As she has for months, she encouraged people to get vaccinated and endorsed it as a pathway out of the pandemic. She also said that masking in schools is preventing community spread.

“The big challenge though is birthday parties, the sleepovers, the family gatherings,” said the commissioner, listing non-school events where contact tracing is indicating the spread is occurring. She also said that many of the cases triggering Milwaukee Public Schools closures are in staff members, not students. “The school setting itself is very well controlled and safe.”

“I guess I see things a little differently,” said Dimitrijevic. “I really don’t think things are going well.”

The city has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases since July, going from 9.8 new cases per 100,000 residents per week to 331.8, a level not seen since January. According to a Milwaukee County epidemiological report, the percentage of new cases occurring in children younger than 12 years old has grown from 20% to 33%.

Four MPS schools have been closed in September for 10 school days each after more than 3% of students and staff tested positive for COVID-19 in a 14-day window.

“It feels like no one wants to talk about it,” said the alderwoman. She said it is economically devastating to families who must switch to caring for children at home and live life like they are in a lockdown.

“It’s an economic issue, it’s a gender issue, it’s a racial issue. It’s time to do everything we can,” she said.

She asked Johnson what it would take to issue a new health order, which would reinstate a council-authorized mask mandate.

“An indoor mask mandate within the city of Milwaukee, there is no guarantee we are going to achieve the outcome we want to achieve,” said Johnson of slowing the disease’s spread. “The enforcement piece is another component that is incredibly challenging.”

“People are getting it in places the mask mandate would not touch,” said the commissioner. That includes surrounding communities as well as gatherings at home. The prior mask mandate, which expired June 1, was enforced indoors, but any fines or punitive actions went to licensed businesses, not individuals.

Johnson said reinstating a mandate could also encourage the Republican-controlled Wisconsin State Legislature to consider stripping her authority to issue emergency health orders. Under state law, Johnson is the only Milwaukee official who can quarantine someone for health matters or issue a health order. “I don’t want to lose that authority for a policy that might not have the impact we want it to have,” said Johnson.

“I respectfully disagree,” said the alderwoman.

Dimitrijevic mentioned that Dane County and the City of Racine have restored mask mandates, as does Chicago.

Johnson noted that Racine’s mask requirement was legislatively approved and that Dimitriejvic could lead her colleagues to do the same. But the alderwoman said that would take at least a month, while Johnson could issue an order within 24 hours. The prior mask mandate was legislatively authorized, but only in effect for as long as Johnson had a standing health order.

Ald. Scott Spiker, who represents the city’s southernmost district, urged caution. “When your customer can vote with their feet and their feet can go effectively across the street, that’s a huge problem,” he said of his district’s jagged borders. He said it could create an economic issue for city businesses.

“Where is the data that shows an economic downturn in Madison or Chicago?” asked the alderwoman. “The economic trials and tribulations are those four schools’ families who can’t go to a restaurant or a grocery store.”

She said she thought a new health order would withstand a legal challenge. I am willing to go to court,” said Dimitrijevic. “I can’t wait to testify in court to tell to tell people I did what I think was right during a pandemic.”

“What would it take to [issue] a health order?” asked Dimitrijevic.

“If I thought a health order was going to have the intended impact, then I would issue one,” said Johnson. But she said it is not a silver bullet.

The debate ended with neither expressing a change in opinion.

“I think we here at city government, no disrespect to the federal or state government, can have intense disagreements while still showing respect for one another,” said Spiker.

Dimitrijevic, a likely candidate for mayor, was the lead sponsor for the July 2020 mask mandate under then-commissioner Jeanette Kowalik. She also voted to support Johnson’s January 2021 confirmation as health commissioner.

Both Johnson and Dimitrijevic have children that attend MPS.

The letter triggering the latest mask debate came from the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA), Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT), Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC), Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES), Parents for Public Schools of MilwaukeeSchools and Communities UnitedWisconsin Working Families PartyMilwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers OrganizationSEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, Voces de la Frontera, Citizen Action of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals.

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One thought on “City Hall: It’s Johnson Vs. Dimitrijevic On Mask Mandate”

  1. CraigR says:

    It’s really pointless to ask for a mask mandate in just the city. I understand the point but unless it is the whole metro area, what does it solve? It will just supply fodder to the Republican Party. Personally, I’ve been vaccinated since February and I’m tired of accommodating all of the stupid people. Maybe Darwin had a point.

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