A federal appeals court has ruled that Dane County (Wisconsin) health officials did not violate free speech protections when citing an area café for advertising itself as a "mask-free zone" during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The appeal came after a US District court judge initially ruled against the business owners in November of last year. In that ruling, Judge William Conley remarked,
“Indeed, what more rational way to send a message to the larger community that its order will be enforced than for a municipality to devote its limited resources to bring its most notorious scofflaw into compliance through education, citations and eventually threat of putting out of business.”
Middleton, Wisconsin Helbachs café openly deified county mask mandate rules in July of 2020, posting a sign on the front door calling the shop a "mask-free zone" and asking customers to "please remove mask before entering" on the first day a mask-wearing mandate went into effect for the county.
A customer posted a photo of the sign to social media, noting,
"We went in with our kids. They went in with masks on, and when we went in, everyone turned and looked at them. People were laughing, asking, 'Don't they know how to read?' and there were a bunch of people pointing and laughing at her."
The news sparked a protest, with organizers speaking out against the cafe's stance and demanding they be held accountable for not following the mandate. A small counter-protest was set up nearby by area residents against the order.
County officials announced a plan to revoke the coffee shop's food/drink licenses and cited the cafe three times for failure to comply with the mandate. The shop ultimately lost its lease and closed.
In court, Helbachs claimed that the county retaliated against them for exercising their right to free speech.
In the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals, a 3-judge panel ruled that the plaintiffs failed to show any evidence of retaliation.