Wisconsin Senate Votes to Repeal Governor’s Coronavirus Emergency, Mask Mandate

GOP lawmakers accused the Democratic governor of going outside his authority in issuing the executive orders, while Democrats called out Republicans for not acting decisively to address the coronavirus pandemic.

The Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison. (Photo via Vijay Kumar Koulampet/Wikipedia Commons)

MADISON, Wis. (CN) — The GOP-majority Wisconsin Senate voted Tuesday in favor of a joint resolution to terminate a public health emergency the Democratic governor issued last week over the coronavirus pandemic and an accompanying executive order requiring masks in public.

The resolution, sponsored by more than two dozen Republican senators and passed through an 18-13 vote, charged that Governor Tony Evers cannot pass public health emergencies for the same crisis beyond an order’s initial 60-day shelf life without legislative approval, a common refrain from Badger State conservatives in the past year while locking horns with liberals over how to address the unabated Covid-19 pandemic.

The measure now goes to the Wisconsin Assembly, where its fate is unclear as of Tuesday evening. Evers cannot veto the resolution if it passes the Assembly.

Twenty-three state lobbies—including health care groups like the Medical College of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Assisted Living Association and Wisconsin Hospital Association—opposed the joint resolution in the last two days, according to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission. Not one organization came out in support of the resolution.

Evers issued his latest public health emergency order and subsequent mask mandate on Jan. 19, stressing that mask-wearing is one of the only effective tools available to slow the spread of the coronavirus, multiple highly transmissible variants of which have been recently detected around the world and as close as neighboring Minnesota.

The governor’s administration has been at near-constant battle with the GOP-controlled Wisconsin Legislature since last March over how to fight Covid-19. Since the first time the governor’s administration got sued when they tried to extend an initial coronavirus lockdown last April, Republican lawmakers have largely opted to take the administration to court over its executive actions while adopting a laissez-faire attitude toward reining in Covid-19 in the state.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court, which has a 4-3 conservative majority and has played a major role in shaping the state’s virus response, struck down that first extension in mid-May and currently has before it lawsuits over public gatherings limits, a previous mask mandate and a broader action seeking to tighten the limits of Evers’ overall executive authority.

After virus activity in Wisconsin experienced a record-breaking surge in October, state GOP leaders and the governor eventually vowed anew to collaborate in good faith on a bipartisan response, but progress on that front has sputtered.

Evers rolled out a $541 million relief package in November focused on testing infrastructure, housing and unemployment. The same day, State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, held a press conference where he laid out a separate policy wish list focused on rapid testing and assisting small businesses.

Republicans across both of Wisconsin’s legislative chambers decried Evers’ proposal as too expensive before the Assembly passed its own bill on Jan. 7, the first time either chamber passed any bill having to do with the coronavirus since last April. The Assembly’s January bill included a number of provisions liberals oppose, such as measures designed to push schools back toward in-person classes and protect businesses, schools and local governments from lawsuits related to Covid-19.

The Wisconsin Senate, however, took issue with multiple aspects of the Assembly bill and rolled out its own $100 million proposal days later, a bill which included some of what Evers wanted but still contained legal protections for businesses from virus-related lawsuits, considered a potential poison pill for the legislation.

Hours of lively debate preceded the Senate vote on the joint resolution to terminate Evers’ orders on Tuesday, as lawmakers made public cases for and against universal coronavirus mandates that largely echoed the partisan divisions which have persisted for the past year. According to the National Academy for State Health Policy, 41 states currently have statewide mask mandates.

Senator LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, wore a mask in a virtual appearance and reiterated public health experts’ point that “besides a vaccine, mask-wearing is one of the few tools we have in our arsenal” to fight Covid-19 and argued against striking down a universal mandate in the name of civil liberties by saying that “your right to choose should not prevent my ability to live.”

Senator Steven Nass, R-Whitewater, a chief author of the joint resolution, appeared on the Senate floor without a mask and condemned Evers for not trying hard enough to work with the legislature before unilaterally issuing his own coronavirus edicts. Nass maintained that “this is not about whether face masks are good or bad, this is about repeatedly issuing emergency orders contrary to what the law allows.”

Immediately after the senators voted on the joint resolution just before 5:30 p.m., Senator Jon Erpenbach, D-West Point, put out a press release lacing into “non-medically educated Republican politicians turning a life-saving measure into a political statement” and saying he is “fed up with Republican politicians that refuse to listen to the experts, refuse to do their jobs, and continually exacerbate the problem by not taking this crisis seriously.”

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the state has tallied 535,218 cases of the coronavirus with 5,753 deaths as of Tuesday.

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