Although wearing a face mask was a new concept for many when the coronavirus began to spread in March, it didn’t faze community organizer Andrea Rodriguez.
Twenty years ago, the Milwaukee native lived in Beijing, where it is common for residents to wear masks daily.
Unaccustomed to the practice, she asked her coworker why.
“The very simple answer I got back then was: ‘I don’t wear it for me, I wear it for you,’ she said.
Now, nearly everyone in the City of Milwaukee will be required to wear masks, thanks to the Common Council’s unanimous approval of the MKE Cares ordinance Monday. The citywide mandatory masking policy will take effect Thursday, according to the City Clerk’s Office.
Rodriguez has advocated for wearing masks even before the ordinance, which mandates residents to wear face coverings in public spaces. In addition, the measure requires the Milwaukee Health Department to create a “Masks for All’ program where residents can request and receive free masks. City officials say they will announce how those free masks will be distributed soon.
Confusion about masks
Dr. Joyce Sanchez, an infectious disease specialist and assistant professor of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said in the haze of the pandemic’s beginnings, mixed messaging from government and health officials created confusion on whether or not to wear a mask.
There was little research on the benefits of cloth face coverings in reducing the transmission of COVID-19 and a massive shortage of PPE, or personal protective equipment, in hospitals nationwide, she said.
But the fact that COVID-19 can be transmitted before an individual develops symptoms or by people who never develop symptoms made it “exquisitely clear” that face coverings are important in stopping the spread, Sanchez said.
But face coverings alone won’t protect others and yourself from the coronavirus, Sanchez said.
Continuing precautions like hand washing, physical distancing and minimizing close interactions will limit transmission of the virus.
“The primary transmission of COVID-19 is through the inhalation of respiratory droplets,” Sanchez said. “Face coverings, by virtue of them being able to stop droplets from traveling do play a role in bringing down that transmission and bringing down that spread.”
She also said there is sufficient evidence to debunk certain misconceptions about wearing a cloth face covering.
One of the myths is that face coverings can make breathing difficult or increase the risk of inhaling toxic carbon dioxide. Sanchez said the majority of people, regardless of health conditions, can safely wear cloth masks without a drop in oxygen or rise in carbon dioxide levels.
The City of Milwaukee ordinance passed after public pressure from a letter co-signed by hundreds of business owners, more than 12,000 people adding their names to a change.org petition as well as input from local health care providers and health professionals and online comments from the general public, said Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarripa in a statement Monday.
The proposal requires masks for everyone 3 and older inside public places and outside within 6 feet of non-family/household members.
The city mandate relies on “self-enforcement.” The Milwaukee Health Department and businesses are responsible for enforcing the ordinance, rather than the Milwaukee Police Department or other local law enforcement agencies.
Last month, Milwaukee County unveiled its Universal Face Mask Policy for county-run facilities. Face masks are required to be worn at all times by employees, contractors, vendors, volunteers, service users and the general public entering county facilities and grounds with a controlled entry point.
What you need to know about face masks
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers information on how to properly wear cloth face coverings and highly encourages washing cloth face coverings after each use.
The CDC only lists “children under age 2, or anyone who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance” as the individuals who should not use cloth face coverings.