MADISON – Nearly two weeks after suing to block Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order, Republican lawmakers have yet to coalesce around their own plan for how to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
If they win their case before the state Supreme Court, they’ll need to put one together quickly.
The state’s business lobby has put forward a plan and some rural and suburban Republican lawmakers have developed one as well, but legislative leaders have not endorsed a specific plan or provided details of what they want to do. Instead, they have criticized Evers’ approach, saying it’s too restrictive and won’t allow the state to reopen soon enough.
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Where Republicans are headed become a little clearer Thursday with a hearing before the Assembly State Affairs Committee on the “Back to Business” plan offered by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.
But while Republicans spoke positively of that plan, the committee’s chairman, GOP Rep. Rob Swearingen of Rhinelander, said he had no plans for the committee to vote on it in the short term.
Republicans are clamoring to reopen the state, but in some ways they acknowledged with their hearing that they’re not yet ready to do it fully. Business representatives backing the WMC plan appeared by video, legislative aides wore face masks and lawmakers were spaced six feet or more from one another.
Assembly Republicans put together Thursday’s meeting a day after Evers criticized them for not holding any hearings on the coronavirus outbreak. Also this week, Evers took a shot at Republican leaders for not putting together their own plan to reopen the state.
“I have a plan and they sued me. If they have a plan, I’d be glad to sit down and talk with them,” he said Wednesday on WTMJ-AM (620).
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau have repeatedly declined to say whether they want to adopt the WMC plan or one spearheaded by Rep. Cody Horlacher, a fellow Republican from Mukwonago.
Instead, they have said they want to engage in negotiations with Evers to develop a plan.
“Our goal is to begin bipartisan discussions on a safe and gradual reopening plan for Wisconsin,” Vos said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the governor, health experts and business owners to help the state recover from these difficult times.”
One of the major issues separating Evers and Republicans is the issue of how to treat different regions of the state. Republicans want to let areas with low infection rates to open sooner. Evers doesn’t want to allow that because he is worried people would flock to the areas that are opened first, increasing the risk of spreading the illness that has sickened more than 6,000 Wisconsinites and killed more than 300.
“As the risk in a county declines, the ability to operate increases, and vice versa,” said a statement from state Sen. Chris Kapenga, a Republican from Delafield who backs the WMC plan.
But James Conway, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Global Health Institute, in a conference call with reporters called opening different regions of the state at different times “terrifying.”
“It’s almost like the least common denominator will prevail if you do start to allow certain areas to open more liberally and have other areas still confined because you know there’s going to be travel and transit between those places. And as we saw in the Green Bay area it doesn’t take much for something to go from a small number of cases to exponentially exploding in just a few short days,” said Conway, who supports Evers’ plan.
The dispute over how and when to reopen comes as some states begin to emerge from their shutdowns and others stay on a path similar to Wisconsin’s.
On Thursday, neighboring Minnesota extended its stay-at-home order for at least two more weeks, until May 18. Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order runs until May 26.
Evers “Badger Bounce Back” plan will allow the state to begin to reopen when certain conditions are met. Over 14 days, the state must have fewer new diagnoses of coronavirus, fewer new reports of flu-like symptoms and a lower percentage of positive coronavirus tests.
In addition, the state must be able to conduct 85,000 tests a week and it must have a greatly expanded ability to perform contact tracing, which involves identifying people who may have been exposed to someone who tested positive.
WMC’s plan would put businesses in different risk categories based on the type of business they conduct, the infection rate in the county were they are located and the population density in their areas. Businesses would have to adopt mitigation strategies based on their risk levels.
The WMC plan accounts for hospital capacity but not testing or contact tracing. WMC Vice President Scott Manley said at Thursday’s hearing that the group backs Evers’ plan to expand testing and contact tracing but wants to replace his plan to reopen the state with its own.
“It represents the best model for safely reopening our economy and giving people a chance to rescue their livelihoods and their businesses,” he said. “We think the plan is tactical.
Democrats expressed skepticism of the plan, particularly the idea of reopening different parts of the state earlier than others.
“If you open up regionally you better believe people from Milwaukee are going to leave Milwaukee to go up north, and go to a restaurant in Brookfield, whatever,” said Democratic Rep. Christine Sinicki of Milwaukee. “You can’t contain it in one city.”
Under Horlacher’s plan, the state would reopen over four weeks, with bars and restaurants offering patio seating the first week and barbershops opening their doors the second week. His plan does not include any benchmarks that have to be met before the state could begin to reopen.
“The people of Wisconsin can simply no longer sustain the economic impacts of this shutdown and in order to survive we need to take a stand for (a fast reopening) to address this economic crisis,” Horlacher and 17 other Republicans recently wrote in a letter to Evers.
GOP lawmakers last week asked the state Supreme Court to block Evers’ stay-at-home order and force him to write formal state rules that legislators can block. The high court could decide as soon as Thursday whether to take the case.
If they win, the Republicans will have to explain to Evers and the public what they want the state’s plan to be.
Evers and his supporters say writing rules would be time consuming and create the risk the state would have no COVID-19 response plan while the rules were being drafted. That situation would persist if Evers and Republicans were unable to reach an agreement on the rules.
“It’s really dangerous what they’re asking the court to do,” said Ryan Nilsestuen, the governor’s chief legal counsel.
If the state couldn’t come up with a plan, it would be up to local governments to determine what policies to put in place, he said. In that case, rules could differ dramatically from one county to the next.
“I think what you would see is a 72-county approach,” he said.
You can find out who your legislators are and how to contact them here: https://maps.legis.wisconsin.gov/
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.
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