A day after Washington County’s top elected official said all coronavirus restrictions would be eliminated, the county’s interim health officer announced a resident tested positive for the more contagious variant first detected in the United Kingdom.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services notified the county about the diagnosis on March 12. The individual was tested in February, the Washington Ozaukee County Public Health Department said in a news release.
While vaccines are ramping up in Wisconsin, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say masks and social distancing remain two of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including variants.
At the same time, Washington County is entering a “new phase … free from government restrictions and recommendations,” County Executive Josh Schoemann said Thursday.
That means no county-enforced mask mandates, no COVID-19 capacity limits for restaurants and businesses and no mandated social distancing requirements.
“No restrictions,” he emphasized in an interview with a reporter.
He said it is up to each business and each individual to use “common sense” on what COVID-19 precautions to take.
“This new phase is best characterized as a movement toward a full return to life as we have long known it, free from government restrictions and recommendations and renewed in our commitment to fully embracing personal responsibility and individual liberty with love for our neighbor,” Schoemann said in a news release.
In an interview, he said he does not plan to wear a mask at county meetings or events. If others want him to wear a mask, he said he “absolutely” would do so.
It is up to people and businesses to decide for themselves, he said.
Schoemann, elected in April 2020, has been outspoken against COVID restrictions over the past year. In October, when cases were surging across the state, including in his county, he said the county would not enforce the mask mandate and people who reported mask violations were “wasting” the health department’s time. In April, he reopened golf courses when others in the state were closed under Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order.
Washington County remains in the high category for case burden with 113.9 cases per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks, according to its COVID dashboard.
The complete lifting of restrictions is more lenient than Milwaukee’s new COVID-19 health order that goes into effect today, easing COVID-19 restrictions.
Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson — who was director of the Washington Ozaukee Public Health Department until the end of February — announced Thursday that Milwaukee’s new order will lesson restrictions at museums, sporting events, bars and restaurants.
Schoemann said in the news release that he directed the health department to assist in reopening churches, businesses, civic organizations, schools and other institutions, to restore normalcy.
“While the needs of public health, at the onset of a novel virus, took on additional weight and attention; so now, as the vaccine and mitigation strategies force the virus to recede, we must recalibrate to fully restore balance with economic, mental, spiritual, and social health needs that have been exacerbated by COVID-19,” he said in the release.
He said the health department would continue to support the community by providing testing and access to the vaccine.
Some businesses will keep COVID-19 health measures
Although Schoemann is ready to lift restrictions, some businesses will err on the side of caution.
Karl Barth, one of the managers of Germantown’s Swing Time, which includes golf, a batting cage, go-karts and a driving range, said the company will continue to follow COVID-19 guidelines posted on the company’s website. That includes social distancing and limiting how many people can be in different parts of the facility.
Barth said that because the facility is outside, it is easier for people to social distance.
Germantown business owner Pinal Patel of Perfect Arch Spa and Eyebrow Threading said a mask requirement is essential due to the nature of her business.
“We need to wear masks because I am so close to the client’s face,” she said. “I wear a mask, and I ask them to wear a mask.”
Germantown Village Administrator Steve Kreklow said village departments and staff members should continue to follow Evers’ mask mandate.
But he said the village is reviewing its programs and activities and is discussing its reopening strategies.
“There are a wide range of feelings,” he said. “We want everyone to find a spot (in the village) they feel comfortable.”
Others won’t have coronavirus restrictions
Germantown’s Stix Golf owner Ryan Hughes said that although he understood when the shutdown began last March in response to COVID-19, he supports Schoemann’s move to lift restrictions.
“I am for personal freedom,” said Hughes. “I believe that giving business options (to wear masks or to limit capacity) is the right move. If people are worried about the virus, they can stay home if they want. Or if they don’t, they can come and wear a mask if they want. Or not wear one.”
Stix Golf has indoor golf simulators and a putting area as well as a restaurant and bar.
He added that if people want to social distance, they can. But he is not telling people what to do.
“I encourage people being safe, having clean hands and respecting people who are wearing masks,” he said. He said there is a lot of room at his business for people to social distance if that’s their choice.
He said he has taken down the signs on the doors saying that masks are required.
As a courtesy, he and his employees will wear masks. “I think that is the right thing to do,” he said.
Mark Brooks, the owner of Germantown’s Das Barrel Room – Tavern & Grill, also agrees with Schoemann’s approach in lifting restrictions.
“We let the people decide (what precautions they want to take),” he said. “I am glad things will go back to normal.”
Schoemann told a reporter that eliminating restrictions is a step toward returning life to normal.
There will be the county fair, beer gardens and festivals, which will look normal, as opposed to last summer, he said.
“Some people say they see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Schoemann said. “And right now, we are in the light.”
About 13,860 Washington County residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and 138 people have died from the virus, as of Friday. There are 362 active cases.