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Eau Claire Unmasked: City, County Repeal Face Mask Mandates

City Council, County Board decisions follow revised CDC guidelines

Tom Giffey, photos by Alee Erickson |

FACING THE MUSIC. The city and county of Eau Claire no longer will mandate that people wear face masks indoors.
FACING THE MUSIC. The city and county of Eau Claire no longer will mandate that people wear face masks indoors.

In response to relaxed federal COVID-19 guidelines, the Eau Claire City Council and the Eau Claire County Board both voted Tuesday to repeal ordinances that required residents to cover their faces to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Both elected bodies had scheduled special meetings following last Thursday’s announcement by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that “fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting,” except when state or local laws say otherwise.

In the case of Eau Claire, the laws in question were public health ordinances mandating masks indoors which were passed by the City Council and County Board in February. Those ordinances went into effect March 31 when the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned a statewide mask mandate issued by Gov. Tony Evers.

At the time, the local ordinances complied with CDC recommendations, Interim City Manager Dave Solberg told members of the City Council at the beginning of Tuesday afternoon’s meeting. However, that changed when the CDC issued its latest recommendations last week. These recommendations focused on people who are fully vaccinated; unvaccinated Americans are still advised to wear masks indoors and maintain at least six feet of physical distance from others.

“Our key message for all of you is that the good news is that vaccines are working and really are our path forward with this pandemic,” Eau Claire City-County Health Director Lieske Giese told the council. The spread of COVID-19 has slowed dramatically in the community, down to an average of about seven new cases per day, compared with more than 200 cases per day in November, Giese said.

Face masks are a basic mitigation strategy that have been effective, Giese said, and they will continue to be called for in certain settings, such as schools, prisons, health care facilities, and shelters.

“We are in a real space right now where risk is lower – and I want that to be clear to council members – but we are not in a place of no risk,” Giese said, noting that approximately 15,000 of Eau Claire County’s 100,000 residents can’t be vaccinated, either because they are too young or have underlying medical conditions that make vaccination inadvisable.

As of Tuesday, 47.3% of Eau Claire County residents had received at least one vaccine dose, while 43.2% were fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health Services. These rates are higher than the state as a whole as well as higher than neighboring counties, including Chippewa County (where 38.6% are fully vaccinated) and Dunn County (where 32.7% are vaccinated – one of the lowest rates in the state).

Since the beginning of the pandemic, a total of 11,559 COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed in Eau Claire County, with 107 deaths attributed to the disease.

After hearing from Giese and a half dozen members of the public, the Eau Claire County Council voted unanimously to repeal its mask ordinance. A few hours later, on a 23-3 vote, the Eau Claire County Board did the same.

Further details can be found in this joint media release from the city and county governments:

Local Mask Ordinances

For Immediate Release May 18, 2021

(Eau Claire, Wis.) – On Tuesday, May 18, the Eau Claire County Board of Supervisors and the Eau Claire City Council voted to repeal the mask ordinances that went into effect in March. Unvaccinated individuals are expected to continue to wear a mask and physically distance, according to CDC guidance. Only 43% of Eau Claire County residents are currently fully vaccinated and individuals under the age of 12 are not eligible for vaccination.

On Thursday, May 13, the CDC released updated guidance that fully vaccinated people can resume activities they did before the pandemic, including participating in indoor and outdoor activities - large or small - without wearing a mask or physically distancing. A person is considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19 if it has been two or more weeks since they got the second dose in a two-dose series (such as Pfizer or Moderna), or one dose of a singledose vaccine (such as Johnson & Johnson). The CDC indicated that all vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals should continue to mask in healthcare settings, schools, correctional facilities, public transportation, shelters and other places where regulations exist, such as businesses or workplaces. See this link for more information: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated.html#vaccinated

As of now, the CDC recommends schools continue to use the COVID-19 prevention strategies outlined in the current version of CDC’s Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools for at least the remainder of the 2020-2021 academic school year, including masks and physical distance. Teachers, school administrators, and staff should continue to follow CDC's school guidance until more people and children are vaccinated. Students and staff on buses should continue to follow all masking and physical distancing guidelines.