Gov. Tony Evers to order Wisconsinites to stay at home, will close non-essential businesses

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Governor Tony Evers issued a #SaferAtHome order, Wisconsinites must stay in their homes starting this week to fend off the coronavirus outbreak. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MADISON – Gov. Tony Evers prepared Monday to order Wisconsinites to stay in their homes starting this week to fend off the coronavirus outbreak that is ravaging populations worldwide.

The governor’s order will force the closure of all workplaces that aren’t providing what he deems essential services. That will mean even more people in Wisconsin will have to work remotely and many could be at risk of getting laid off. 

The Democratic governor made the announcement on Twitter just three days after saying he did not think he would have to issue such an order. In those earlier comments he said he would do whatever was scientifically necessary. 

Republicans who control the Legislature criticized the change of course and contended the governor had “created mass amounts of confusion” because Evers’ announcement didn’t include many details. 

They demanded to know what businesses would be affected and how long the order would be in place — details Evers and his aides said they wouldn’t provide until they had been worked out Tuesday. 

Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said the governor took a new tack because of the “rapidly evolving” spread of the coronavirus, which has claimed five lives in Wisconsin. As of Monday, 416 people in the state had been confirmed to have the illness — including Democratic state Rep. David Bowen of Milwaukee. 

Nationwide, more than 35,000 people have the virus and nearly 450 people have died from complications after contracting it. 

Evers said he would formally issue the order Tuesday and it was expected to take effect within a day or so of that.    

The governor did not spell out how the state could conduct its April 7 presidential primary and election for state Supreme Court and local offices. As he has for weeks, Evers encouraged people to vote absentee.  

Evers is calling his edict a safer-at home order rather than a shelter-in-place order, as ones in some other states have been described. Evers’ phrasing is the same as what’s been used in Ohio and is meant to get businesses to close and people to stay at home without terrifying them or making them think martial law is being imposed.   

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“I know this has been difficult and has disrupted the lives of people across our state,” Evers tweeted. “That’s why issuing a #SaferAtHome order isn’t something I thought we’d have to do, and it’s not something I take lightly. But here’s the bottom line: folks need to start taking this seriously.”   

Baldauff said Evers’ order won’t include strict rules like requiring anyone outside to have a doctor’s note.  

Under the order, people will be able to go to grocery stores, doctor’s offices and pharmacies and go outside to exercise or walk a dog. But people will be required to stay at home for most other reasons and the governor noted that means “no sleepovers, no playdates and no dinner parties with friends and neighbors.”   

Restaurants, which were closed by the governor last week for dine-in service, will be able to continue to provide delivery and curbside takeout, according to the governor.    

Some manufacturers, such as paper product maker Kimberly-Clark Corp., may also stay open under the governor’s order. 

“Folks, ‘all hands on deck’ means you too,” Evers said in a telephone news conference.

As with Evers’  past orders that limited the size of gatherings and closed schools and bars, local officials will be responsible for enforcement.

Kurt Bauer, president of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, said in a statement the business lobbying group wants Evers to take care of the state’s economy along with the public’s health.  

“It is our hope that Gov. Evers exempts all manufacturers from this order, in addition to all businesses in the critical supply chains for health care, food access, transportation, construction, energy, financial services and other needed industries,” he said in his statement.

Top GOP leaders expressed surprise at the order after hearing from Evers in recent days that he did not think he would have to put such a restriction in place. They were frustrated that Evers wouldn’t specify yet what types of businesses would be affected.  

“The governor’s sudden change of course and lack of specific guidance have increased the level of uncertainty and anxiety in our state. The people of Wisconsin deserve clear communications during a public health emergency,” said the statement from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau. 

Evers’ office gave lawmakers a heads up about his order just before he announced his plans publicly. His aides have been offering legislative leaders daily briefings about the spread of the disease and the administration’s response to it.  

“Gov. Evers is relying on science and guidance from public health experts to respond to and manage the spread of COVID-19,” Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback said in a statement. “The governor will continue to make the necessary, difficult decisions he has to in order to save lives in Wisconsin.”   

Evers’ health services secretary, Andrea Palm, said the stay-at-home order was necessary to limit how many people get sick at once. Public health experts have warned surges of patients could overwhelm hospitals, as they have in Italy.   

“You will be safer, your communities will be safer and Wisconsin will be safer” if people stay home, Palm said.  

State officials also are working with Wisconsin-based companies like health-care software giant Epic Systems and biotechnology businesses Exact Sciences and Promega. The trio will help state health officials track patients, expand testing and produce more testing ingredients, Palm said.  

It’s unclear whether the state has enough capacity within its hospitals to handle a spike in patients. Department of Health Services officials couldn’t say Monday how many of the current patients with coronavirus have been hospitalized.  

Election questions loom

Evers announced his plans as local officials pleaded for help with keeping polling sites safe. He offered them few answers and declined to say Tuesday whether he would designate voting locations as providing essential services that would exempt them from his stay-at-home order.   

A push to delay the election mounted Monday, but Evers gave no sign he would move in that direction.  

“I’m part of pastors and religious leaders in Milwaukee who believe that it would be a devastating, pitiful attempt to have the election on April 7,” Gregory Lewis, president of Souls to the Polls, said on a conference call with reporters. “If someone is saying we have to stay at home, how can we go out and vote?”

He was joined by representatives from other groups that want a delay, including the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Voces de la Frontera and the Milwaukee branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, meanwhile, called on state leaders to change the voting process, whether by changing the date or shifting to mail-only balloting. 

Dramatic change is needed to ensure people’s right to vote can be exercised in a safe way, he said during a virtual news conference Monday. 

The city has ceased in-person early voting. Barrett said an increasing number of poll workers at the city’s three early-voting sites were declining to come in due to concerns about the virus. 

Local officials from across the state are asking Evers and lawmakers to make changes if the election is held as scheduled, including lifting the requirement that voters sign the poll book and waiving a law that poll workers live in the county where they are working. They also want assurances that schools — which are closed to students for the foreseeable future — do not have children present on election day because many schools are used as polling sites.

They are also asking that clerks be allowed to begin counting absentee ballots before election day and that they accept absentee ballots that arrive in the days after the election as long as they are postmarked by election day, according to the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. 

Some of those issues, such as counting late-arriving ballots, are part of a lawsuit the Democratic National Committee brought against the state last week. A judge on Friday gave people more time to register to vote online and will consider other aspects of the case in the coming weeks.

Alison Dirr and Mary Spicuzza of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Contact Patrick Marley and Molly Beck at patrick.marley@jrn.com and molly.beck@jrn.com. Follow on Twitter at @patrickdmarley and @mollybeck.

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