By Al Stanek
Whitewater Banner volunteer staff
The City of Whitewater’s COVID-19 Face Covering Ordinance and a policy requiring that all city meetings be held electronically have been eliminated by Common Council action.
The ordinance requiring that a mask covering both the nose and mouth be worn in all buildings open to the public within the city limits went into effect on August 1 of last year and lasted for nearly ten months. The mask mandate had recently been extended to June 30 of this year. The local repeal comes on the heels of similar actions by Milwaukee, Madison and other Wisconsin cities and counties. Whitewater was one of the first half dozen Wisconsin communities to enact a mask mandate according to a July 20, 2020 Associated Press (AP) article.
The City of Whitewater policy requiring that all public meetings be held without the physical attendance of participants and observers was also repealed, effective June 1, at the May 18 Common Council meeting. So-called “virtual meetings” were held with participants taking part either by phone or via computer technology in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Common Council was reviewing the virtual meeting policy monthly.
Several Council members offered the observation that virtual meetings appeared to have increased the “attendance” at many city meetings and advocated for a future policy of offering a hybrid model featuring both in-person and virtual attendance at city meetings.
City Manager Cameron Clapper recommended that initially the hybrid model be offered only for Common Council, Plan Commission and Community Development Authority (CDA) meetings. Clapper offered that, “The City, like other organizations, is facing staff shortages along with equipment challenges making the hybrid model difficult to offer for all city meetings.” Ironically, the May 18 meeting which would normally be broadcast live to local cable subscribers was missed due to an equipment failure. Meetings are video recorded and available to view on the city website.
Two citizens took advantage of the opportunity to make comments on the issues electronically. Karen Kachel advocated for the ordinance and policy change and Anne Hartwick, a Library Board member, urged the city to find a way to offer the hybrid option for all city meetings. She pointed out that the “virtual” attendance option not only makes it more convenient for citizens to take part but that it might allow residents to volunteer for committee assignments who might otherwise be hesitant about their ability to regularly attend in person.
Changes in city mask mandate policy are apparently in response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) easing of indoor mask wearing as reported by the AP last week. The CDC is now recommending that fully COVID-19 vaccinated people can be allowed “… to stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings” according to the AP article. The CDC decision was reportedly made after review of a study indicating reduced risk for fully vaccinated individuals.
The CDC revised guidance still calls for mask wearing in crowded indoor settings and several Whitewater Common Council members indicated that they would continue to wear masks when deemed appropriate. Both CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and President Joe Biden said that people who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks indoors, according to the May 14 AP article. Walworth County reports that 37.7% of County residents have been at least partially vaccinated as of May 17. COVID-19 has been responsible for over 600,000 US deaths including nearly 8000 Wisconsin residents and over 150 Walworth and 130 Jefferson County residents according the National COVID-19 Database.