Milwaukee to Bring Back Mask Mandate as Wisconsin Sees 'Unprecedented Surge' Due to Omicron

Amid the Midwest's latest Omicron-driven COVID surge, cities like Milwaukee are bringing back mask mandates in an effort to curb the variant's rapid spread.

On Tuesday, the Milwaukee Common Council voted 12 to 1 to set a new citywide mask mandate for any person over the age of 3 entering an indoor public space.

The proposal was approved by the Public Health and Safety Committee and supported by the local health commissioner. However, the "non-mandate mandate," as described by Alderman Bob Bauman, won't subject offenders to citations or fines from the health department.

Instead, city officials will target the business licenses of establishments that aren't enforcing masks. The order will be in effect until March 1.

The decision comes as Wisconsin faces an "unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant," according to the state health department.

On Monday, Wisconsin reported 35,756 new cases as the state's 72 counties all show "critically high" virus activity levels.

The latest available city data from January 13 indicates Milwaukee's rate of transmission is in the "extreme" category with a 36 percent positivity rate.

Over the course of the week, the Milwaukee Health Department plans to distribute over 1 million KN95 masks, which have shown to be more effective at preventing the spread of COVID than cloth masks.

"Masking is critically important to mitigating the spread of COVID-19, and the higher quality N95 masks are even more effective in protecting against the Omicron variant," Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson said in a statement last week.

"The Milwaukee Health Department staff is doing their best to get these masks into the hands of our community, but we ask everyone to exercise civility and patience," she added.

Mask Mandate Milwaukee Midwest Omicron COVID
Seven cities in Minnesota have reimplemented mask mandates amid the Midwest's Omicron wave. Above, shoppers, some wearing face masks, walk at the Mall of America on June 16, 2020 in Bloomington, Minnesota, after some of the shops at the mall reopened on June 10. Kerem Yucel/AFP

Milwaukee isn't the only Midwest city that has recently moved to reinstate a mask mandate.

Over the weekend, two cities in Minnesota—Rochester and Minnetonka—announced they would join Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, Hopkins and Golden Valley in implementing mask mandates.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati recently imposed a mask mandate for people entering city buildings and for city employees working indoors—stopping short of the citywide mask mandate floated by the city's top medical officer.

Earlier this month, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb warned that while Omicron has already peaked in East Coast states like New York, Florida, Maryland and Rhode Island, the worst of the variant is on its way to hit the Midwest.

"The risk right now is to the Midwest, where you have rising infection, where they aren't in the thick of their Omicron wave yet," Gottlieb told CBS News' Face the Nation on January 9. "You have states that had high hospitalization rates going into this, that had a lot of Delta infection, that had been coming out of that Delta wave, so their hospital census was already high and now they're seeing Omicron infections pick up."

"Length of [hospital] stay is down substantially... so that's allowing hospitals to turn over beds," he added. "But the sheer velocity of the spread right now and the number of hospitalizations is pressing them."