Wisconsin Governor Signs New Mask Mandate After Legislature Repeal

Continuing a hyperpartisan feedback loop, Wisconsin’s Democratic governor issued new Covid-19 emergency orders on Thursday shortly after the Republican-majority Legislature axed the existing ones.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers is seen wearing a facemask last year. (Wisconsin Department of Health Services via the AP, File)

MADISON, Wis. (CN) — Wisconsin’s Democratic governor on Thursday signed a new coronavirus emergency order and a new mask mandate immediately after GOP lawmakers made good on their promise to throw out existing orders, continuing a bitter showdown over how to fight Covid-19 in the Badger State.

The Wisconsin Senate—which, like the Assembly, has a Republican majority—voted last Tuesday in favor of a joint resolution to end Governor Tony Evers’ most recent emergency order and subsequent mandate requiring masks in most indoor, in-public scenarios.  

The Assembly backtracked on doing the same two days later after it surfaced that the state would forfeit millions of dollars in federal food stamp funds if the resolution passed as is. But having reportedly resolved that issue through amendments to a larger Covid-19 relief bill expected to hit Evers’ desk by the end of the week, the Assembly voted to repeal on Thursday as well, with the revocation of the statewide executive orders to take effect when the resolution is signed by legislative leaders on Friday.

Revoking the emergency order and mask mandate—a move opposed by more than 50 state organizations representing everyone from health care workers to educators to the Oneida Nation—is the first uniform measure the Legislature has passed in response to the coronavirus since an initial relief bill nearly 300 days ago last April. Not one organization has publicly come out in support of forging ahead with no statewide mandates.

About one hour later, Evers announced that the public health emergency and mask mandate were back in place, arguing that masks in particular are a crucial tool in fighting the spread of the coronavirus and its variants. He pointed to surveys that indicate broad public support for mitigation measures.

“Wearing a mask is the most basic thing we can do to keep each other safe,” Evers said in a video statement Thursday. “If the Legislature keeps playing politics and we don’t keep wearing masks, we’re going to see more preventable deaths, and it’s going to take even longer to get our state and our economy back on track.”

Moments after repealing the standing orders, Republican lawmakers sent Evers a letter broadly condemning his response to the coronavirus as a stubbornly partisan failure and telling him to submit any further Covid-19 actions to procedures that give a Republican-controlled administrative rules committee the ability to block whatever he proposes.

Wisconsin Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, left, talks with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, at the State Capitol last month. (Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File)

GOP legislators have repeatedly insisted that their beef is not with mask-wearing or advising residents to protect themselves and others from the virus, but rather with Evers’ preferred tactics of eschewing strategies that give lawmakers the power to dictate the state’s response in favor of unilateral executive actions they contend are an unconstitutional breach of his authority.

Wisconsin law allows the governor to declare a 60-day public health emergency but requires the Legislature to sign off on an extension. Because lawmakers have refused to extend any of the numerous mandates Evers has issued in the past year, the governor has elected to just keep issuing new emergency mandates that the Legislature then fights, establishing a now familiar feedback loop.

This has left it to Wisconsin’s courts to referee between the executive and legislative branches. The Legislature sued Evers after his health secretary extended the state’s first virus emergency order in April, and in May the conservative-majority Wisconsin Supreme Court struck it down.

Thursday’s drama virtually guarantees the high court will once again play the defining role in shaping the state’s virus response. Currently before the court are lawsuits over public gatherings limits, a previous mask mandate and a broader action seeking to tighten the limits of Evers’ overall executive authority, rulings for which are anticipated in the coming weeks.

Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oosterburg, laced into Evers for showing “flagrant disregard for the rule of law by issuing yet another illegal statewide mandate” on Thursday.

“The people of Wisconsin can no longer be subjected to confusing, unilateral decrees without basis in statute,” LeMahieu said. “We must reinstate the rule of law, uphold separation of powers, and restore confidence in our system of government.”

State Representative David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, issued his own statement applauding Evers’ actions and blasted GOP lawmakers for repealing the mandates, while noting that seven Republicans joined Assembly Democrats in opposing the repeal.

“As disappointed and frustrated as I am with Assembly Republican leadership who keep proving their focus is on mundane fights that risk lives, I am more thankful that Governor Evers was willing to call their bluff and take a stand for people of Wisconsin who have already lost so much,” Bowen said.

The Assembly passed an amended version of a broader Covid-19 relief bill on Thursday, which lawmakers say the Senate plans to approve and send to Evers on Friday. Republicans originally planned to take up the matter in mid-February, but said Thursday that it must be signed by Feb. 7 in order to meet a requirement to receive additional federal pandemic unemployment assistance benefits.

But since Evers and the Legislature have not been able to agree on the size or substance of the relief bill, its fate remains uncertain as of Thursday.

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