Wisconsin Governor Declares New Emergency, Extends Mask Order

Heart rates, blood pressure levels and oxygen levels of Covid-19 patients are closely tracked in UW Hospital’s Covid-19 unit in Madison, Wis., on Nov. 5, 2020. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File)

MILWAUKEE (CN) — Wisconsin’s governor declared another 60-day state of emergency over the state’s rampant coronavirus spread on Friday in addition to issuing a new face coverings mandate.

Friday’s executive order is the fourth declared by Democratic Governor Tony Evers since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic this spring. Evers’ new mask mandate is the second he has ordered, and requires every Wisconsinite age 5 and older to wear a face covering if they are inside somewhere other than a private residence and around people they do not live with, barring some exceptions.

The governor said unprecedented, exponential coronavirus spread in Wisconsin has burdened state hospitals with a lack of beds and serious staffing shortages, with more than a third of all local hospitals operating at peak capacity and unable to admit new patients.

Republicans have thus far challenged every instance in which Evers has unilaterally used his executive authority to combat the coronavirus, opting to leave it to state courts to address their grievances with the Democrat’s mitigation efforts instead of collaborating on a holistic legislative approach.

The Wisconsin Legislature, which has strong GOP majorities in both chambers, first sued acting Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm in the conservative-majority Wisconsin Supreme Court on April 21 when she extended the state’s first virus lockdown at Evers’ behest.

GOP lawmakers argued at the time that the extension was illegal because Palm lacked authority to order such a sweeping lockdown as an unconfirmed bureaucrat. They also made the case that rural parts of the state with little to no coronavirus impact at that time should not be held to the same onerous standards as cities like Milwaukee and Madison, where the virus was more concentrated.

The high court agreed and struck down the extension in mid-May with a 4-3 decision largely split along partisan lines. Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley, part of a chorus of conservative justices deriding the lockdown, compared Palm’s moves to contain the virus’ spread to a 1944 U.S. Supreme Court decision justifying Japanese internment camps.

Any spirit of collaboration on battling the virus has eluded Wisconsin leaders ever since, and Badger State citizens have been left with inconsistent public health directives and mixed messaging from partisans unable or unwilling to work together.

At the time of the high court’s decision, GOP lawmakers indicated they were working on Covid-19 legislation now that the ball was more or less in their court, but nothing came to pass in the months to follow.

According to an Evers spokesperson, the governor sent a letter to Republican legislative leaders on Oct. 12 saying he was willing to meet and discuss their statewide pandemic plan but received no response.

The Evers administration has already been sued over a previous mask mandate, as well as another limiting public gatherings with a cap on bar and restaurant capacity.

The public gatherings order was upheld by a circuit court judge but ultimately nixed by a split appeals court panel 2-1. The state high court granted the Evers camp’s request for review and the matter is slated for oral arguments on Dec. 14.

After a circuit court judge upheld the mask mandate, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a conservative advocacy group bringing the lawsuit and a frequent Evers litigant, asked the state’s highest court to weigh in. That case was stayed pending the supreme court’s resolution of an entirely separate lawsuit from a private industrialist and conservative donor seeking to rein in Evers’ executive powers and invalidate the governor’s July and September states of emergency, under which the mask and public gatherings mandates were entered.

In the meantime, the coronavirus—for which there is no cure or available vaccine yet—has run wild in the Badger State, which has broken its own records for confirmed cases, daily averages, deaths and hospitalizations in commonplace fashion.

The state of just under 6 million people has had 2,954 deaths from 344,945 cases of the coronavirus, more than 75,000 of which are currently active.

After months of near total silence, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R- Rochester, publicly acknowledged the severity of Wisconsin’s virus spread in late October and expressed openness to a second Covid-19 relief package—which would be the first from the state since April 15—but initial action toward that goal has sputtered.

On Tuesday, Evers publicly rolled out details of a $541 million relief package focused on testing infrastructure, housing and unemployment, while Vos laid out a separate list of Covid-19 initiatives including increasing rapid testing, doubling the number of contact tracers and assisting small businesses. The assembly speaker, perhaps the most powerful Republican in the state, conceded the legislature still had no concrete proposals at the time, saying he wanted to sit down with the governor first.

But in a sign that wheels are perhaps finally turning on a unified pandemic response, Vos’s office put out a statement Friday saying he, incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and Evers talked pandemic response during a conference call that morning, which Vos called “a productive discussion” the speaker sees as “a positive step forward to finding common ground in developing a more unified state response to the coronavirus pandemic.”

The statement offered no details on what was discussed or a timeline for next steps.

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