MADISON – The head of the Department of Natural Resources is telling employees to wear face masks on teleconferences — even when they’re not around others and at no risk of spreading the coronavirus.
Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole reminded employees in a July 31 email that Gov. Tony Evers’ mask order was going into effect the next day. That means every DNR employee must wear a mask while in a DNR facility, noted Cole, an appointee of the Democratic governor.
“Also, wear your mask, even if you are home, to participate in a virtual meeting that involves being seen — such as on Zoom or another video-conferencing platform — by non-DNR staff,” Cole told his employees. “Set the safety example which shows you as a DNR public service employee care about the safety and health of others.”
The governor’s mask order requires people to wear masks when they are indoors — other than in private residences.
From a medical perspective, masks need to be worn at home only in limited situations, such as to protect people if someone living with them has COVID-19, said Nasia Safdar, the medical director of infection control at UW Health.
“Beyond that, there is not a reason to routinely wear a mask in your home if that risk isn’t there,” she said.
Safdar said wearing a mask on a Zoom call may be a way to show support for the idea, but, “in general I would tie mask use to transmission risk, and that doesn’t seem to be a good reason to wear it.”
GOP Rep. Joe Sanfelippo of New Berlin said he believed in general most people should wear masks when they’re in public. But the DNR’s position that employees should wear them for teleconferences is ridiculous, he said.
“I’m more inclined to support things that actually do help as opposed to just putting on an appearance of helping,” he said.
DNR spokeswoman Megan Sheridan said the agency wanted to set an example and create “a very visual reminder to all that wearing a mask in a public setting helps prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
The DNR’s promotion of mask wearing comes as Republicans who control the Legislature debate whether to overturn the mandate.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau has said his caucus is ready to do that, but the Assembly hasn’t decided whether to do so. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester hasn’t said what he wants to do, and GOP Rep. Adam Neylon of Pewaukee said Sunday on WISN-TV that Republicans in that house don’t have the votes to repeal the mandate.
In a statement, Fitzgerald said his members had hoped to eliminate the mandate last week.
“We still stand ready to act, and are waiting on word from the Assembly as to what their plans are,” he said in his statement. “My caucus hasn’t shifted on its position.”
UW Health’s Safdar said she was frustrated by the politicization of mask wearing.
“I have to confess in the world of science it’s been a little bit odd for us to see how political mask wearing has become when it really is solely a public health intervention with no other agenda behind it,” she said.
Repealing the mask requirement would be “a very terrible thing,” she said.
“There really is no risk to mask wearing, so I think it would be very disappointing to say the least if this were to happen,” she said.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.