DANE COUNTY, Wis. — There aren’t many good reasons to stand outside on a 30-degree Wisconsin winter night, especially at dinner time on a Monday in the middle-of-nowhere village of Mazomanie — except to protest the senseless and never-ending mask mandate hanging over Dane County.
After the Board of Health for Madison and Dane County reportedly refused to hear Dane County citizens who registered to speak at a public hearing two weeks ago, county Supervisors Jeff Weigand and Tim Rockwell decided to organize a public hearing on the mandate.
“The citizens of Dane County deserve a forum to express their thoughts on this public policy issue,” Weigand wrote on Facebook in a post announcing the hearing. “Whether one supports or opposes the mask mandates, the people should have the right to share their thoughts with Dane County’s elected officials.”
At 6:05 p.m. on Monday, dozens of local residents huddled around a silent live feed of the public hearing taking place just on the other side of the wall-turned-projector screen. The Town of Berry Town Hall had already maxed out its capacity, with almost all attendees ignoring the “Masks Required” sign on the door. While some cars seemed to circle the full parking lot and take off, plenty of other frustrated locals weren’t going to be deterred by a full building and a chilly night.
They gathered around picnic tables under a pavilion outside the building, eating homemade cookies, mixing hot chocolate packets into water from big orange Gatorade coolers, and hoping they would get a chance eventually to snag a seat inside. While the outsiders lined up to try to listen through the door, one woman hurried over to report that even after some cars had left, there were still 125 vehicles in the parking lot.
Residents were instructed to fill out registration forms indicating where they lived, whether they were “for” or “against” the mask mandate, and whether they wanted the chance to speak. Judging by the abundance of naked faces, most of the attendees hadn’t sacrificed their busy December evening in support of the order. Based on the rolling queue of speakers’ names and the string of impassioned three-minute comments, Dane County residents had suffered long enough in silence. They came to be heard.
“Two years is an awful long time to rule by fiat and decree,” said a frustrated resident named Craig, adding that’s “not an emergency.”
Some attendees encouraged their fellow residents to defy the mandate, with one woman declaring that she never wears a mask when she enters big-box stores. “I just walk in like I own the place,” she said, to much agreement.
One woman lamented that by the end of her intense workouts, she’s inhaling sweat. Another stressed how the mandate wreaked havoc on her chiropractic appointments. A local pastor lamented the mandate and how it has affected his two-year-old daughter and invoked scripture passages, and one husband relayed statistics about how COVID mitigation despair has caused spikes in suicide and mental health issues, specifically among children.
“Mask mandates do not control viruses; they only control people,” said one resident, capturing the frustration characterizing many attendees.
The hearing was full of mothers and fathers concerned about their children’s education and development. One mom whose daughter is only in the 2nd percentile for speech said the mask mandate has not only destroyed her child’s chances at adequate therapy, which has now been shortened and relegated to Zoom, but has exacerbated speech problems across the board. Because the mandate applies even to toddlers as young as 2 years old, children at daycare learn to talk and listen with muffled words and no cues from facial expressions and lip movements.
Ironically, protecting children is the supposed rationale behind the latest iterations of the order from the unelected health Director Janel Heinrich, with County Executive Joe Parisi saying last month that their “main goal” with mask diktats is to protect “those most vulnerable to the virus, including unvaccinated children.”
The hearing attendees haven’t bought that rationale, not only because they can read the endless data showing healthy kids are at an almost zero risk of dying from COVID-19, but because they’ve seen the harms of mask mandates firsthand in their own families.
They’ve also seen the rug pulled out from under them enough times. The order, which Heinrich handed down in August after a brief mask rule hiatus, was renewed in September, renewed in October, renewed in November, and kept in effect through the New Year.
Dane County was one of the most vaccinated counties in the entire country at the time the mandate was put in place, and according to the health department’s own numbers, herd immunity here could be as high as 90 percent. When Heinrich first issued the mandate in August, weekly average deaths had been steady at zero since the middle of May, and in the early November renewal of the mandate, Heinrich admitted the county is experiencing “decreasing case rates, increasing vaccination rates and the expansion of eligibility for booster doses which will only help strengthen our collective immunity.” This leads residents to ask, “What’s the point?” and “What will it take for these mandates to end?”
After Monday’s hearing, Weigand revealed online that of the 182 people who had registered with their thoughts on the mandate, only five were in favor of it, with 176 opposed.
Residents are tired of being gaslit with this logic-defying paternalism and petty rules, and they finally got the chance to say so.
“I want a local county government that’s going to convince, not coerce” and that treats me like a “God-fearing citizen, not a child,” Craig said. Is that so much to ask?