Gov. Tony Evers says he will extend mask mandate into 2021

MADISON – Gov. Tony Evers said Wednesday he will issue a new public health emergency on the coronavirus pandemic and will extend the state’s indoor mask mandate into 2021. 

Evers also called on Republican lawmakers and conservatives to stop pushing a lawsuit aimed at blocking the mandate, which is the only statewide government intervention currently in place to curb the spread of COVID-19, which is raging in Wisconsin.

“It’s clear based on where we’re headed, we cannot afford to stop or have a gap in some of the only mitigation efforts we still have in place,” Evers said. 

Evers announced his plans for a new order as Wisconsin set a new record Wednesday with 7,989 cases of COVID-19 reported and as 52 people lost their lives to the virus. 

The order itself has not been issued. Evers said only that the mask mandate would be extended into January. No specific end date was offered.

Aides to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and GOP Senate leaders Devin LeMahieu and Scott Fitzgerald did not respond to requests for comment. 

Wisconsin is one of few states without any kind of statewide plan to navigate the pandemic after Republican lawmakers successfully sued Evers in May, blocking his ability to impose mitigation measures without the Legislature. 

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Every measure Evers has put forward has been challenged by Republicans. The mask mandate, while also being fought in state courts, is the only order to have survived — so far. 

With no additional mitigation tools, Wisconsin heads into winter, a period when infections are expected to surge even higher unless there is a dramatic change in behavior.

The state was under a stay-at-home order in the spring when testing was sparse and knowledge of how the virus spread was limited. New daily cases were in the low hundreds and Wisconsin experienced lower rates of infections than most of the country, including its neighbors.

Now, the state has greatly expanded testing, a higher percentage of cases are coming back positive, and we know more about how to avoid the virus: by avoiding other people.

But Evers has made clear he won’t seek another order limiting public interaction despite new infections nearing 8,000 per day — the fifth-highest rate in the country. 

Meanwhile, the state’s Midwestern neighbors are adopting plans to combat the surge in cases. 

In Minnesota, for example, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday closed bars, restaurants and gyms for four weeks.

In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds on Tuesday banned indoor gatherings of 15 people or more and outdoor gatherings of 30 or more. She also limited operating hours for bars and restaurants. 

New restrictions also took effect in Michigan.

Republicans in Wisconsin, meanwhile, have maintained that shutting down the economy is not worth the health implications. 

“If you believe that the virus is contagious only after 9 o’clock at night, you do not understand the nature of the virus. It is contagious 24 hours a day, which is why we need people to use a mask, wash their hands, practice social distancing and be careful,” Vos said on Nov. 10 about the prospect of limiting bar hours. 

“I don’t see a need for us to shut down any part of government or any part of the private sector,” he said.

Some localities step in

Wisconsin, which has similar rates of infection to Minnesota and Iowa, has no statewide restrictions on gatherings, bars or restaurants after the successful legal challenges. 

Instead, restrictions have been prescribed by individual municipalities. In Dane County, no more than 10 people may gather together in any setting under a new order. 

In a Wednesday media briefing with Evers, state Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm said Wisconsin is experiencing alarming rates of hospitalizations, leaving one part of the state with no available beds in intensive care units. 

As of Wednesday, 19% of COVID-19 patients in hospitals are in ICUs. 

When asked why he has not opted to seek new restrictions through legislation or through a legislative process known as rulemaking, Evers said Republican lawmakers have made clear they’re not supportive of such mitigation approaches.  

“So that stops that in its tracks,” Evers said of the rulemaking process. “So why start … down a 30- or 40-day ordeal to have people say no?” 

It’s looking doubtful that new measures are coming from the state Capitol anytime soon.

Evers this week gave Vos and LeMathieu, the incoming Senate majority leader, a $541 million piece of legislation aimed at providing relief. But Vos and incoming Senate President Chris Kapenga signaled Republicans who control the Legislature aren’t on the same page and haven’t drafted any of their own bills.

Evers released his legislative package earlier than planned after Vos called a news conference Tuesday afternoon “about new legislative initiatives” on COVID-19 instead of responding to a request from Evers on Monday to work together on finalizing a bill to present publicly next week. 

Vos did not release specific proposals at the news conference, but told reporters he wants to work with Evers on a bill that would double the number of contact tracers in the state, provide lawsuit protections for businesses and expand rapid testing throughout the state.

But Kapenga, R-Delafield, said he didn’t see any need for the Legislature to act.

“At this point, I haven’t seen anything that I’m real excited about,” he said.

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Contact Molly Beck at molly.beck@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.