MADISON – Assembly Democrats may skip the inauguration of state lawmakers next week because Republicans who control the chamber aren’t requiring masks and taking other steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“I think there’s real apprehension about being in a room for a sustained period of time with people that aren’t willing to wear masks. We’ll have to see, but I think there are a lot of people that are planning on not going,” said Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz of Oshkosh.
Hintz said he doesn’t want to go to the inauguration and feared he could endanger his community if he visited the Capitol because of the way Republicans plan to hold it. Having all Assembly Democrats skip the event is “a real possibility,” he said.
In addition to a mask requirement, Democrats want Assembly leaders to take other protective measures, such as allowing legislators to participate in debates remotely, Hintz said.
All Assembly Democrats have already been sworn in under a process that lawyers have determined passes legal muster, Hintz said.
Lawmakers and others who work in the state Capitol have been infected with COVID-19 in recent months, but officials have not detailed the extent of any outbreaks. Most recently, Rep. Tod Ohnstad, D-Kenosha, disclosed this week he had been diagnosed with the illness.
In a statement, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester said legislators and their aides would be asked to wear masks for the legislative session that begins Monday. He did not say the masks would be required.
“People all across Wisconsin safely go to work every day and members of the Assembly are capable of doing so as well,” Vos said in his statement.
“The Assembly will convene safely as other legislatures across the country have done during the pandemic. Members and staff are being asked to follow (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines, practice social distancing, wear a mask and wash their hands frequently.”
Vos recently cut an ad with Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan of rural Dane County to try to show there is bipartisan support for wearing masks.
“Always wear a mask, Wisconsin,” Vos said in the spot. “Wash your hands and practice social distancing.”
Pocan expressed frustration Wednesday that Vos and other Republican leaders were not requiring masks on the Assembly floor, even after U.S. Rep.-elect Luke Letlow, a Republican from Louisianna, died Tuesday at age 41 from complications from COVID-19.
Pocan noted Republicans require male lawmakers to wear jackets and ties on the Assembly floor but not masks.
“There is no excuse for not requiring masks — as most employers do — in every effort to keep people safe during a pandemic,” Pocan said in his statement.
In an email last week, Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Tyler August, a Republican from Lake Geneva, told lawmakers masks were encouraged — not required — during the inauguration.
Rep. Jimmy Anderson, a Democrat from Fitchburg, railed against the lack of rules.
“It’s beyond irresponsible,” Anderson said. “They’re essentially gambling with my life.”
Anderson said he has 20% to 30% breathing capacity because he is paralyzed from the chest down and unable to fully open his lungs. A COVID-19 infection could be deadly, he said.
“Any type of respiratory diseases are incredibly deadly to me,” he said.
Hintz and other Democrats sent Vos a letter on Tuesday asking him to change course, but Vos offered no sign that he would do so. They sent their letter just as
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers this year put in place a mask requirement affecting most Wisconsinites, but his executive order does not apply to the Legislature because it is a separate branch of government.
Molly Beck of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
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