Some Republican lawmakers and candidates, as well as former Gov. Scott Walker and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, have attended recent political events and fundraisers where Wisconsin’s mask mandate was all but ignored — even as coronavirus cases are surging around the state.
When Vice President Mike Pence visited Wisconsin Monday, hundreds of mostly unmasked supporters gathered at the Janesville Conference Center.
That night, Walker, state Rep. Rob Swearingen and others attended a fundraiser at a cozy Northwoods lodge for state Rep. Mary Felzkowski, who is running for the state Senate seat previously held by U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany. In photographs posted to social media, nobody at the event appears to be wearing a mask.
Over the weekend, Kleefisch, state Sen. Patrick Testin, Congressional candidate Derrick Van Orden and Dan Kapanke, who is running for his old state Senate seat, attended a La Crosse Lincoln Day Dinner that appeared to draw more than 200 supporters.
Photographs posted to social media showed a packed room with few masks and no social distancing.
The event was held on last Saturday night. The following day, UW-La Crosse issued an urgent “shelter in place” order, citing an increase of COVID-19 cases, and suspended in-person undergraduate instruction for two weeks.
Kleefisch, a cancer survivor, posted photographs of herself wearing a mask while inside, although she was talking to supporters who were not wearing masks.
Wisconsin’s mask rule requires that anyone age 5 or older wear a face covering when indoors or in an enclosed space other than a private residence, and when people who are not members of an individual’s household are present in the same room or enclosed space.
Under the order, face coverings are also strongly recommended in other settings, including outdoors, when it is not possible to maintain physical distancing.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers issued the statewide mask mandate on July 30 and recently indicated he may extend the order, which is set to expire on Sept. 28.
The conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) has filed a lawsuit over the mask mandate, but for now the order remains in place.
Asked about elected officials and candidates flouting the mask mandate, Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback said Wisconsinites overall have “been working together to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by staying safer at home, practicing social distancing, wearing a mask, and limiting attendance at large gatherings.”
“Wisconsinites should be able to expect the same from their elected officials, whether they’re formerly or currently elected or a prospective candidate for office,” Cudaback added. “We continue to ask everyone to do their part to help stop this virus and we need elected officials to lead by example.”
Republicans said they are taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously — but are allowing people to make their own choices about whether to wear masks.
“We want to be respectful and conscientious of the seriousness of the issue. That’s why we offer masks and hand sanitizer at all of our offices for anybody who wants it,” Andrew Hitt, chair of Republican Party of Wisconsin, said in a statement. “From our understanding other events are doing the same, but it’s up to the individual on what precautions they take based on their personal situation.”
Democrats appear to be adhering to masking and social distancing guidelines. When Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris separately visited the state, they wore masks and tightly limited attendance at their events. Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, held one of their small events — a discussion on education — in the backyard of a Wauwatosa home.
Wisconsin Democrats also have made many of their events virtual instead of in-person gatherings, including its recent “Princess Bride” reunion fundraiser.
Patrick Remington, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said whether to wear a mask “seems to have become a partisan issue.”
“I don’t entirely understand why,” he added.
“I mean, I believe individuals can make a decision for themselves whether they want to take a risk, but I think that’s different than individuals’ decision to become a risk,” Remington said. “And going into an indoor space, going into a fundraiser, and deciding not to wear a mask is the decision that you are becoming a risk. You’ve made a decision to become a risk for others.”
He added, “Some people feel that it’s their right to be able to become a risk for others, and others feel the mask is a social responsibility.”
President Donald Trump’s events in Wisconsin and around the country have similarly defied mask mandates and recommendations made by public health experts, as well as members of Trump administration’s pandemic response team. That guidance includes avoiding crowds, wearing face masks and standing apart from others to contain the spread of the virus.
“We’ll call it a peaceful protest so we can do whatever we want,” Trump said at an August rally in Oshkosh, referring to large protests against police brutality and racial discrimination.
Some Republicans have pointed to recent protests against racial inequality as examples of other large gatherings where coronavirus could be spread — although most of those have been held outside.
Although Trump’s Thursday night event in Mosinee and earlier Oshkosh rally were held mostly outside, some in the crowd sat inside an open airplane hangar.
Some have opted to wear masks while attending such events.
At an Aug. 31 fundraiser in Minocqua for Tiffany, at least one person could be seen in photographs wearing a mask.
“At each of our events, we performed temperature checks and made masks and sanitizer available to all attendees upon arrival,” campaign spokesman Charles Nichols said. “Congressman Tiffany believes in respecting an individual’s right to make his or her own decision on whether to wear a mask. We will continue to encourage people to make their own reasoned decisions on how to best protect themselves.”