MADISON – Gov. Tony Evers is urging but not requiring limits on public interaction on a day of record infections and deaths and as Wisconsin hospitals are running out of intensive care beds.
Evers on Tuesday evening delivered a statewide address and issued an executive order to make his case to the public: please stay home. It’s the first time the governor has used a prime-time platform to ask the public to begin to take the pandemic seriously, nine months into the outbreak.
“Wisconsin, this is serious. This crisis is urgent,” Evers said in a speech from the Wisconsin State Capitol. “It’s not safe to go out, it’s not safe to have others over — it’s just not safe. And it might not be safe for a while yet.”
Governors in Iowa and Minnesota issued similar pleas on Tuesday as the pandemic rages through the Midwest and accompanied the requests with orders imposing restrictions such as limiting the number of hours bars may be open and how many spectators may attend youth sports games.
Track COVID-19 in Wisconsin: See the latest numbers and trends
Evers’ advisory comes as Wisconsin hit new records: 7,073 new cases of COVID-19, 66 new deaths and 2,070 people in hospitals sick with the virus. As of Tuesday, there are just 128 intensive care beds available in the state — a supply that could disappear within seven days if current trends continue.
The coronavirus pandemic is out of control in Wisconsin, a state topping the nation’s charts in rates of infection and nearing the bottom in number of limits on public interaction — which are zero in the Badger State after Republican lawmakers successfully sued Evers to eliminate his plan to limit the spread of the virus.
Evers’ order recommends Wisconsin residents to stay home as much as possible, limit gatherings to households only, and asks business owners to require masks in the workplace and allow employees to work from home.
The order suggests restrictions required in Evers’ stay-at-home order that was struck down earlier this year.
A spokeswoman did not immediately answer why Evers is advising restrictions instead of mandating them, but Evers said in his speech that a May state Supreme Court ruling limited his ability to issue such mandates.
“We estimated then that our efforts would save between 300 and 1,400 lives,” Evers said about the order that was invalidated. “That order was struck down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court — a decision that hamstrung our ability to respond to this virus by using the tools supported by science and public health experts.”
Every measure Evers has put forth to combat the virus has been challenged in court by conservatives, including a popular mask mandate. Last week, a state appeals court invalidated his most recent order to limit capacity in bars and restaurants and restrict public gatherings.
White House officials have urged Wisconsin leaders in recent weeks to implement new mitigation measures and come together to present a unified message to get skeptics on board but Republican lawmakers have largely ignored the calls to do more.
Vos, Evers to speak for first time in 6 months
The Democratic governor and Republican leader of the state Assembly haven’t spoken to each other in six months, but Evers’ speech Tuesday may have triggered a détente.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told reporters Tuesday evening he called Evers after the speech and said he wants to talk.
“I think the people of Wisconsin want us to stop arguing about COVID and start working together to show that we can actually help to work together to solve the problem,” Vos said.
Vos said he hoped Republicans and Evers could get along better now that the election is over, saying it was an opportunity to “hit the reset button.”
Vos’s comments are the first suggesting Republicans and Evers may actually work together on the pandemic. Evers sent GOP legislative leaders a letter in early October asking them to bring him a plan they could accept to combat the virus, given the repeated challenges to Evers’ ideas, but neither Vos or Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald responded.
Republican leaders of the state Senate suggested this weekend they haven’t yet contemplated what, if anything, to put in a plan to combat the raging outbreak nine months after the virus began to spread in Wisconsin and six months after they sued Evers to eliminate his plan.
“My door remains open to any and all suggestions that can put Wisconsin in a better place to help with the spread and surge of this virus,” Sen. Patrick Testin, the GOP chairman of the Senate’s health committee, said in an interview on WKOW.
Vos, R-Rochester, said earlier Tuesday he hadn’t talked to Evers in six months despite the pandemic because he didn’t agree with Evers’ approach.
“Gov. Evers has consistently said he will not even talk to us until we have our own plan, which I think is idiotic,” Vos said. “As I’ve said how many times, you have to have the ability to sit down and talk about things that you think are important. … It’s one common goal, which is to help people make sure they can get through the virus.”
Evers said he would be introducing new legislation in the coming days “to provide more support for Wisconsinites” but did not provide details.
Vos said he and his colleagues would discuss specific ideas to deal with COVID-19 Tuesday during a closed caucus meeting.
“I don’t see a need for us to shut down any part of government or any part of the private sector,” Vos said about a potential plan to combat the virus.
He also did not offer specifics on what he wants to do other than expand testing and urge the public to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I think we should have had much more robust testing much sooner,” he said. “I certainly have no problem with making sure that we have a robust way to make sure that if you are diagnosed with COVID you are able to be quarantined in a way that keeps you and the people you’ve been in contact with safe.”
He said he wants to find out the best way to deploy tests the state has received from the federal government. He said he would like to use federal money to do that first but did not rule out spending state money on the effort.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-West Point, said Republican lawmakers need to sit down with Evers to hash out a plan.
“Our record positive rates and hospitalization rates are no longer manageable. The majority Republicans need to sit down with the Governor and work together to get us out of this,” he said in a statement. “You can’t manage or cure a pandemic by going to court.”
Vos and other Republicans filed a legal brief to try to overturn the state’s mask requirement, which remains in effect. Vos on Tuesday said he wants people to voluntarily wear masks but does not support Evers’ mandate that they do so and does not want the Legislature to put one into place either.
‘No one gets to be the dictator’
“It’s not about masks. It’s about the process we utilize,” Vos said. “What I have been saying from the very beginning is the governor should not be able to have czar-like powers to unilaterally dictate. If any of you have watched ‘Schoolhouse Rocks,’ there’s a reason we have three branches of government because no one gets to be the dictator no matter how well-intentioned they may be.”
Fitzgerald, R- Juneau, said in an interview with WISN on Sunday his caucus would consider passing new legislation if Congress passed a new COVID-19 relief bill. He said the only acute problem in the state, in his view, was an outbreak in Wisconsin’s prisons.
But Democratic leaders in the state have urged Evers to take more action against the pandemic even though all the governor’s orders have been challenged or knocked down by conservatives.
“I think he’s certainly tried to provide leadership. And I congratulate him and thank him for trying to provide leadership,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett told reporters on Tuesday. “But you can see the fact that the Legislature hasn’t met since April and now our numbers are in the top three or four in the nation tells you that what’s happening in Wisconsin is certainly not working. A laissez-faire approach to COVID-19 has not been successful.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth, has criticized the state for not hiring more contact tracers, said he hoped Evers’ legislation would address that issue. He also called for more testing.
“It’s time for people to work together across party lines to meet this urgent crisis,” Pocan said.
Hospitals are close to running out of ICU beds, according to new data from the Wisconsin Hospital Association. Twenty-two new patients were admitted to ICUs on Tuesday, a trend that would leave no ICU beds available within seven days if the trend remains consistent.
A hospital system in northwest Wisconsin also announced Tuesday all of its hospitals were full.
Officials at the Mayo Clinic Health System said 100% of their beds were full in hospitals in Barron, Bloomer, Eau Claire, Osseo and Menomonie.
“The public urgently needs to treat COVID-19 as the health emergency it is to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed. We are pleading for everyone’s help to wear a mask and follow all public health guidelines to limit the spread of this disease,” said a joint statement from Richard Helmers, the system’s regional vice president; Jason Craig, regional chair of administration; and Pam White, chief nursing officer.
Evers in his address noted how quickly the outbreak has accelerated in recently weeks. Since Friday, Wisconsin has seen more than 25,000 new cases.
“It took us seven and a half months to get to 100,000 cases. But it only took 36 days to add another 100,000. The way things are going, it will take us only 20 days to reach another 100,000,” he said.
Sophie Carson of the Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.