Wisconsin Governor Limits Public Gatherings Amid Covid Surge

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers holds a news conference in Madison, Wis., on Feb. 6, 2020. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File)

MADISON, Wis. (CN) — Wisconsin’s Democratic governor issued a new emergency order Tuesday limiting capacity at public gatherings and a variety of businesses in response to a recent surge of coronavirus cases in the Badger State, a move that is virtually guaranteed to be challenged in court by Republicans.

Governor Tony Evers’ latest emergency order, issued by the state health department at his direction, limits indoor public gatherings to no more than 25% of a room or building’s total capacity starting at 8 a.m. Thursday and extending until Nov. 6, or two full Covid-19 incubation periods.

The order applies to bars, restaurants, stores and other businesses that allow public entry, in addition to spaces with ticketed events. It does not apply to office spaces, manufacturing plants, child care settings or health care facilities.

Private residences are also not included in the order’s limitations, unless “a residence is considered open to the public during an event that allows entrance to any individual,” at which point such gatherings are limited to 10 people, according to the order.

Evers pointed to a disconcerting spike in Wisconsin’s coronavirus cases in recent weeks as rationale in a press release accompanying the emergency mandate.

“We’re in a crisis right now and need to immediately change our behavior to save lives,” Evers said. “We are continuing to experience a surge in cases and many of our hospitals are overwhelmed, and I believe limiting indoor public gatherings will help slow the spread of this virus.”

Acting Department of Health Services chief Andrea Palm joined the governor’s call for stricter limits on the public sphere Tuesday, flatly stating “the unfortunate reality is this: the disease activity level of Covid-19 in Wisconsin is so high that going to a gathering puts you at very high risk of exposure.”

“We know gatherings are a key way this virus spreads, so we must act to limit indoor gatherings to stop the spread, reduce illness, and save lives,” Palm said.

The coronavirus’ recent uptick in the state has resulted in some troubling statistics.

On Tuesday, the state health department reported 2,020 new confirmed cases with 18 new deaths and said the seven-day average of new daily Covid-19 cases has nearly tripled from 836 a month ago to 2,346 now. As of Sept. 30, more than 60% of Wisconsin’s 72 counties meet the threshold of a very high disease activity level, meaning there are more than 350 cases per 100,000 people in that county.

“This means Wisconsinites should assume they will likely be exposed to the virus if they leave home and should practice all safety precautions,” according to Tuesday’s press release.

Hospitals in the state’s Fox Valley around cities like Appleton and Green Bay reported nearing or exceeding the capacity of their Covid-19 wings over the past week, indicating Wisconsin’s coronavirus surge has been testing the limits of health care workers in some parts of the state.

Hours before Evers issued the emergency order Tuesday, the governor earmarked $100 million in funding for struggling small businesses, including the tourism and lodging industries, live music and performance venues and movie theaters. A day earlier, the governor announced a $47 million infusion to support child care, health care navigators, food security and energy and rental assistance.

The bulk of funds for both initiatives come from CARES Act funds and a special grant program launched by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a public-private jobs agency created in 2011 by former Republican Governor Scott Walker.

The Evers administration’s latest lockdown move is unlikely to stand unperturbed for long, as conservatives both in and out of the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature have fought with the governor over the state’s Covid-19 response at every turn since Evers’ first emergency lockdown order in mid-March.

There has been no statewide action to combat the coronavirus since the conservative-majority Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down an extension to Evers’ original emergency declaration in May. The high court concluded at that point that Evers and Palm could not unilaterally extend 60-day states of emergency without input and approval from lawmakers via statutory rulemaking procedures, which run through a joint committee controlled by Republicans.

About 150 days have passed since the statewide order was struck down and the onus was put on the legislature to work in concert with Evers to craft a statewide coronavirus response, but lawmakers have declined to take any action.

Leaders in Wisconsin have instead relied on the courts to resolve their intractable differences in philosophy regarding Covid-19 instead of working together on policy.

Parties from the liberal governor’s administration and the private conservative establishment argued about it in court as recently as Monday, in a lawsuit from three taxpayers represented by a conservative advocacy group with the backing of legislative Republicans.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, or WILL, argued Monday that St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Michael Waterman should nix a face covering mandate Evers enacted via emergency order in late July and extended in late September because it violates state law and was imposed without say-so from the legislature. Waterman is expected to issue a ruling in that case any day.

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R- Juneau, could not immediately be reached by phone or email to comment on the governor’s emergency order Tuesday afternoon.

WILL’s founder and chief counsel Rick Esenberg told Courthouse News in an email Tuesday afternoon that the group is reviewing the matter.

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