CITY OF MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee's health department says it anticipates reducing capacity limits for businesses next week, as it reports a spike in COVID-19 cases in the city since last month.
The seven-day rate of cases per 100,000 people now stands at 95.6 - a rate the health department defines as "substantial transmission." The percentage of positive tests for coronavirus also increased to 5 percent or "moderate transmission," according to the health department in a statement Friday.
Based on those negative trends, the department anticipates changing the public health order next week from Phase 6 to Phase 5, including reducing capacity limits. The department admits many businesses with approved safety plans may not be substantially affected by the move.
The department did not announce Friday any specifics regarding where capacity limits would be set, and for whom. But the health department's gating criteria that guides COVID-19-related limits does recommend 25 percent capacity limits for businesses that don't have approved safety plans with the city in Phase 5. It also affects religious and entertainment establishments, retail, hotels and child care, among other businesses.
The trend is made worse with the increasing spread of COVID-19 variants, including the B.1.1.7 or United Kingdom variant, understood to spread more quickly and lead to worse symptoms.
The department said it is hopeful that Wisconsin's transition to allowing anyone 16 years or older to get the COVID-19 vaccine this week will help push back against the rising number of COVID-19 cases. For the first time, the supply of vaccines is "sufficient" to meet the demand at the FEMA-led Wisconsin Center vaccination site and at community sites across the city, the Milwaukee Health Department said.
Public Health Order Phase 6 went into effect on March 18, allowing the following:
- Restaurants and bars will see an increase in possible capacity and an easing of the restrictions on movement of patrons inside the establishment. While seating must be available and encouraged, it is no longer required unless a patron is eating or drinking.
- Museums can be open with capacity limits and protective measures including masking.
- Sporting events and recreational activities are now permitted to have up to six spectators per event participant with a limit of 750 fans indoors or 1,000 fans outdoors as long as physical distancing can be accommodated. An approved safety plan can allow larger crowds.
- The order no longer restricts visitors to long-term care facilities.
Some of those improvements, particularly those regarding capacity limits, are now expected to change.
Since late March, however, the Milwaukee Health Department expressed concern in a number of statements regarding the rise of cases and the spread of the variants.
The city's mask mandate remains in place, even though the statewide version was struck down by the state Supreme Court last week.
Milwaukee Health Department Commissioner Kirsten Johnson described the concerning trends this way in Friday's statement:
“It seems counterintuitive. At a time when vaccinations are available and everyone is aware of safe practices, we should see COVID-19 infection rates declining. That is not the case. The presence of newer, easily transmitted COVID variants is one likely culprit; another factor is COVIDfatigue. With the finish line in sight, we all need to take every reasonable precaution to limit the spread of the virus.”