MADISON – A Sawyer County judge has, for now, blocked Gov. Tony Evers’ latest order to curb the spread of coronavirus by limiting public gatherings and the number of customers bars and restaurants may serve at one time.
The order from Judge John Yackel knocks down the order at a time of record hospitalizations, new cases and deaths — and after bars and restaurants have lost a massive amount of revenue as customers stay away while the pandemic rages on in the state.
It leaves much of the state without any restrictions on public interaction at a time when the virus is surging, but some counties have chosen to enforce their own orders, like in Madison and Milwaukee.
The governor’s order was lifted the same day a field hospital opened to care for COVID-19 patients as hospitals in some areas of the state become overwhelmed. On Wednesday, more than 1,000 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 for the first time since the pandemic hit the state in February.
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The decision blocks enforcement and requires attorneys for Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm to appear in court on Monday to defend the order and argue why it should not be put on hold while the lawsuit brought by a Sawyer County restaurant and the Tavern League of Wisconsin is litigated.
“This is a dangerous decision that leaves our state without a statewide effort to contain this virus,” Evers’ spokeswoman Britt Cudaback said. “We will be challenging the decision, and in the meantime, we need Wisconsinites to stay home and help us prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Democratic state Sen. LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee said if the decision becomes permanent, the state will be exacerbating the already out-of-control spread in the state.
“Make no mistake, if this dangerous decision stands, Wisconsin will be choosing full bars over full classrooms. What a pathetic set of priorities to teach our children,” she tweeted.
The governor’s emergency order seeks to reduce public interaction to curb the spread of the coronavirus by capping customers to 25% of the establishment’s capacity limit, which is a “defacto closure,” the Tavern League of Wisconsin argues.
The plaintiffs, the Flambeau Forest Inn in the village of Winter and the Sawyer County Tavern League and the statewide Tavern League, argue the limits should have been implemented through a process known as rulemaking.
Tavern League lobbyist Scott Stenger said 25% capacity means it costs more to be open than to be closed for many bars and restaurants. He said the league would be open to a higher capacity limit.
The lawsuit argues the Flambeau Forest Inn has been harmed by the order because it does not have official capacity limits; the restaurant must limit its customers to 10 people under the state order.
The restaurant’s dining space includes seating for 60 people, and its bar has seating for an additional 25 patrons, according to the filing.
“If Flambeau were forced to operate at a 10-person capacity, it could only include five customers onsite with the five staff normally required to operate the bar and restaurant,” according to the lawsuit.
Yackel was appointed to the Lincoln County Circuit Court in 2012 by former Gov. Scott Walker. He later lost an election there and successfully ran to be a judge in Sawyer County in 2015.
The odds-on favorite to win a Madison seat in the state Assembly used the C-word this week to describe the leaders of the Tavern League, which includes six women, for suing the governor over part of his COVID-19 response plan.
“Please note that the corrupt, crooked, (c-word) at The Tavern League do not represent the interests of all bars and restaurants. Since March I have pleaded that we need united messaging, a plan and policy in place to protect public health and local economy. We still have neither,” Francesca Hong, who operates a Madison restaurant, tweeted late Tuesday.
Her tweet using a word that disparages women had received more than 500 likes by Wednesday morning. But as some cheered Hong on, the top Democrat in the Assembly said through a spokesman that her use of the word was inappropriate.
In a statement and string of tweets Wednesday, Hong said people should be focused less on her use of the word that demeans women and more on the Tavern League, which she contends is putting profits ahead of human lives.
Patrick Marley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.