Evers says Wisconsin businesses back him on mask order as Republicans weigh whether to undo it

MADISON – Democratic Gov. Tony Evers warned lawmakers Monday that they would put the public’s health at risk if they repeal his face mask order, as the state Senate’s Republican leader said he was unsure whether GOP lawmakers could agree to take that step. 

Evers said the state’s business community was on his side as he tries to battle the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau would create a mess if they overturn the mask requirement, he said.

“I’ve heard Fitz say a couple times now about the radicals that convinced me to do this,” Evers said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I didn’t realize that the leaders of Johnson Controls, Kohler, Manpower, Kwik Trip (and) lots of other businesses in the state represent the radical left.

“They need to think this through. This will hurt the health of Wisconsinites and it will be a mess politically for everybody. Talk about dividing people!”

Fitzgerald, who faces a primary opponent next week in his bid for Congress, said he hoped to bring the Senate into session as soon as this week to eliminate the mask requirement. But he added that he couldn’t do so without the agreement of Republicans who control that house.

RELATED:Opposition to Tony Evers’ mask mandate rises as Senate leader threatens to block it, sheriffs say they won’t enforce

Fitzgerald said Senate Republicans were united in wanting to eliminate the mask order, but Assembly Republicans weren’t certain they wanted to do so. 

“They were definitely proceeding cautiously,” he said of Assembly Republicans in an interview. “(Assembly Speaker Robin Vos) didn’t seem to think there were a lot of members as concerned about the mandate as what I found in my caucus.”

Vos, of Rochester, did not respond to questions Friday and Monday about whether he would bring the Assembly into session on the issue.

Evers’ mask requirement went into effect Saturday. Evers said its implementation was successful but some weren’t complying because of Republican resistance to it.

RELATED:These Milwaukee-area police departments don’t plan to enforce the statewide mask mandate

“Certainly with the Republicans trying to muck it up, there will be people that won’t abide by (it), knowing full well that gives the Republicans some fodder,” he said. “But at the end of the day that is all about health and safety and if they don’t believe in that, it is going to be a problem for our state and frankly the politics of Wisconsin.”

Fitzgerald said wearing masks should be up to individuals.

Asked if he thought Republican governors from states such as West Virginia, Indiana and Texas were wrong to issue mask orders, Fitzgerald said: “My opinion? Yes. I don’t understand the nuances between having people comply on their own. I thought we were moving in that direction.”

Health experts have said as many people as possible should wear face coverings to avoid the spread of the illness, which has killed nearly 1,000 people in Wisconsin.

In the interview and in an appearance on WISN-AM (1130), Fitzgerald said he was worried Evers would use his powers to delay the reopening of schools this fall. Evers shuttered schools in the spring, forcing students to take classes virtually.

“It’s just not about the mask mandate,” Fitzgerald told conservative radio host Jay Weber. “This is about whether or not he’s going to go after schools next. And if he does that under the emergency declaration, we’ve got to go in there and rescind this order.”

Evers has said he expects schools to reopen this fall, but Republicans question whether he will allow that to happen.

“The mandatory face mask order was nothing more than political cover for the real purpose of the governor issuing an illegal emergency declaration — keeping public and private school buildings from reopening in September,” GOP Sen. Steve Nass of Whitewater said in a statement.

Nass did not offer evidence to back up his claim that Evers would order schools not to resume in-person classes. Milwaukee and some other school districts have decided on their own to start the semester with online classes, while other districts plan in-person education.

RELATED:Here’s what Milwaukee area school districts are planning for restarting classes in the 2020-’21 school year

Evers last week declared a public health emergency and under that declaration issued his mask order, which requires most people to wear masks when they are indoors at places other than private residences. An earlier public health emergency he established expired in May.

Under state law, public health emergencies last for 60 days unless shortened or extended by the Legislature. Lawmakers could immediately end the public health emergency, and Evers would not be able to veto that action. 

To take a vote, Republicans would need to convene what’s known as an extraordinary session of the Legislature. That requires the approval of both houses.

Ending the public health emergency could have consequences beyond the mask order. It could complicate efforts to use the National Guard to help at the polls and continue to conduct its COVID-19 testing. Fitzgerald said he was confident the state could find ways to keep the National Guard involved even if the emergency order were eliminated.

Fitzgerald said Republicans may take up other issues if they return to Madison, but any topics would have to be worked out between leaders in the two houses. 

GOP Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills, the co-chairwoman of the budget committee, last week said she would like to address problems with the state’s unemployment system and provide aid to farmers if lawmakers come into session.

The Senate held a meeting virtually this spring to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Fitzgerald said if senators meet on the emergency order they will likely do so in a hybrid fashion, with some senators appearing virtually and others showing up in person, possibly in masks.

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.