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WI State Agency Mandates Employees Wear Masks While Teleconferencing Alone at Home

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Zoom meetings and masks have become ubiquitous in the land of the “new normal.” The thing is, the two of them are generally mutually exclusive.

We work via Zoom meetings so that we can stay away from situations that might require a mask. Masks, meanwhile, are for when we’re in enclosed public spaces around other people — usually not the kind of venue where you’re teleconferencing.

If you were to draw a Venn diagram with one circle labeled “Zoom Meetings” and another one that says “Situations Which Require a Mask,” there wouldn’t just be a lack of overlap; the two circles would be six feet apart, as per social distancing guidelines.

Don’t tell that to the head of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, who vaulted past an impressive field of contenders to become the most absurd bureaucrat in the entire coronavirus game with one email.

On Aug. 1, by order of Democrat Gov. Tony Evers, Wisconsinites must wear masks indoors when they’re around other people.

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Here’s Evers issuing the order (try to be impressed with his mask):

According to WTMJ-TV, there are three significant carve-outs for the mask order — the obvious one being that if you’re in a private residence, you don’t need to wear a mask.

Video conferencing from a coffee shop was obnoxious enough when there wasn’t a deadly virus afoot, so I’m pretty sure no one in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources — or any other major government bureaucratic organization — is Zooming in to the morning meeting from a Starbucks.

Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole is aware of that. He’d still like you to wear a mask when you’re on a meeting, if you don’t mind, because you need to set an example.

“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 said in a July 31 email, as reported Monday by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

“Set the safety example which shows you as a DNR public service employee care about the safety and health of others.”

Cole was appointed by Gov. Evers. I understand brown-nosing can be effective, but doesn’t Evers have an incompetent relative Cole could have just given a job to?

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Nearest I can tell, if you’re the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, you had four options on how to handle this:

  1. Apologize for a silly policy that undermines faith in how Wisconsin’s state government is handling the coronavirus crisis.
  2. Say that it’s Secretary Cole’s policy and refer all questions to him.
  3. Don’t respond to press inquiries and maintain radio silence until this blows over.
  4. Double down on crazy and say this is the message you wanted to send all along.

We’re still talking about this, so guess which avenue the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources decided to pursue?

Later on Monday, DNR spokeswoman Megan Sheridan told McClatchy DC this was all about setting a good example — even if that example is laughable.

“By wearing a mask while video conferencing with the general public, we visually remind folks that masking is an important part of navigating the business of natural resources during this tumultuous time,” Sheridan said.

This whole exchange feels like what would happen if you decided to reboot “Office Space” and set it during the pandemic:

“Did you get the memo about the TPS reports and wearing a mask at your kitchen table? Yeah, if you could go ahead and make sure it also covers your nose too, that’d be great.”

Another reason, according to Sheridan, is that images of maskless meetings might be used to impugn members of the DNR.

That’s because “taken out of context, a screenshot of a staff person or high ranking department official, if not properly attributed, could be misinterpreted to suggest that state employees are not properly following the governor’s directive,” she said.

During a Zoom meeting?

I mean, fine, I get it. You’re Megan Sheridan and it’s been a long Monday. The caffeine is wearing off and you know that if you go for another K-cup, you’ll be tossing around at 1 a.m. desperately waiting for the melatonin to take hold. Suddenly, McClatchy DC is on the other end of the line. The guy who’s probably your boss’ boss’ boss said something cretinous about wearing masks on Zoom calls.

Perhaps you got the email. Perhaps you’ve even been following the policy yourself. You didn’t think you’d have to defend it to a major publication, though.

It’s time to extemporize. So, yeah, the department is trying to “visually remind folks that masking is an important part of navigating the business of natural resources during this tumultuous time.”

And then you outdo yourself by insinuating that someone taking a screenshot of a Zoom meeting with state employees not wearing masks would be more problematic for the DNR than an inane policy insisting its employees wear the masks during the Zoom meeting. That’s the ticket.

My assumption is that she finished the call, took a deep breath and then edited her LinkedIn page to remove that part about “responds quickly and effectively, in an on-message manner, to challenging media queries in a high-pressure environment.”

By the way, in case you had to ask, there’s almost no sense behind wearing a mask in your home unless you’re living with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.

“Beyond that, there is not a reason to routinely wear a mask in your home if that risk isn’t there,” said Nasia Safdar, University of Wisconsin Health medical director, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

As for the messaging, she told the newspaper that while it might be a might way to show token support for the mask order, “in general I would tie mask use to transmission risk, and that doesn’t seem to be a good reason to wear it.”

Also, even if you support Wisconsin’s mask mandate (for the record, I’m not a fan), making its application look petty and absurd has real-world consequences. Republicans, who control Wisconsin’s state legislature, could have the votes to overturn the mandate; the Senate GOP caucus says it does while the Assembly GOP doesn’t appear to.

If you want to get those wavering GOP assemblymen to get on board with overturning the mandate, have reporters texting them about a government functionary requiring  underlings to wear masks on Zoom meetings and asking them to comment on it.

GOP state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, who the Journal-Sentinel says generally backs mask wearing in public, had some subtle criticism for the mask-at-home policy.

“I’m more inclined to support things that actually do help as opposed to just putting on an appearance of helping,” Sanfelippo told the Journal-Sentinel.

This preposterous mandate doesn’t just do that: It makes the mask order look like an arbitrary piece of coronavirus theater.

If Preston Cole knows as much about preserving natural resources as he does about COVID-19 transmission and messaging, expect Wisconsin to be an arid, strip-mined desert by the time he leaves office.

This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.

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