GOP lawmakers seek to end mask mandate, public health emergency

MADISON – Nearly 30 Republican lawmakers are seeking to terminate Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ latest public health emergency, which would end the statewide face mask mandate — the only measure in place throughout Wisconsin to control the spread of COVID-19.   

Sens. Julian Bradley of Franklin and Steve Nass of Whitewater introduced a resolution Thursday that would immediately void the health emergency, arguing it is unconstitutional. 

“The governor has grossly overstepped his authority. I am hopeful that the Senate will vote for this resolution on Tuesday, and I encourage Wisconsinites to reach out to their legislators to support this effort,” Bradley said in a statement.  

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The resolution reads: “… the legislature can and must take immediate action to protect the integrity of the legislative powers authorized under the Wisconsin Constitution and the integrity of this republican form of government.” 

The lawmakers, many of whom are members of the Legislature’s health committees, are seeking to end the only mitigation measure in place to control the spread of COVID-19 at a time when they are also arguing the governor isn’t doing enough to protect Wisconsinites from the virus.

Before the Nov. 3 election, Republican leaders of the Legislature fended off calls from some of their members to end the mandate in order to keep more vulnerable lawmakers from being on record opposing the requirement that is supported by a majority of Wisconsinites, according to 2020 polling. 

Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach of West Point said ending the mask requirement would lead to more illness and death. He said he holds out hope that some Republicans will put down the effort.

“Is the crazy minority going to control the big majority?” Erpenbach asked. “There’s a reason why we didn’t vote on the mask mandate over the past couple hundred days — because I do think some Republicans don’t want to go on record as opposing it.”

He said Republicans need to come up with a plan to deal with COVID-19, noting Senate Republicans and Assembly Republicans have been unable to agree on what to do.

“They have excelled in saying no and going to court but not offering up any alternatives to what the governor is proposing,” he said.

Britt Cudaback, a spokeswoman for Evers, said the resolution is another way Republican lawmakers could hinder the state’s response to the pandemic. 

“Republicans haven’t taken COVID-19 seriously from the beginning, and they still aren’t now more than 280 days since they last sent a bill to the governor’s desk,” she said in a statement. 

The state Senate will take up the resolution on Tuesday. It’s unclear whether the resolution will be taken up by the Assembly.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos did not co-sponsor the resolution and has appeared in statewide ads promoting wearing a face mask at all times. But he has also said that while he supports mask wearing, he does not believe a statewide mask requirement should be in effect.

Health committee members sign on

The resolution is co-sponsored by several members of the Legislature’s health committees, including Senate Health Committee chairman Patrick Testin. Assembly health committee members Chuck Wichgers, Ken Skowronski, Gae Magnafici, Barb Dittrich, Clint Moses and Rachael Cabral-Guevara also co-sponsored the resolution. 

The resolution argues Evers overstepped his authority by issuing a new public health emergency this week because the state Legislature never voted to extend the original health emergency he declared in March when the coronavirus pandemic spread to Wisconsin. 

A St. Croix County judge upheld Evers’ ability to issue consecutive orders, saying the governor has broad discretion during health emergencies. A case at the Wisconsin Supreme Court makes a similar argument to the lawmakers’ resolution.

The suit alleges Evers no longer has the power to issue emergency orders because the initial emergency declaration he made in response to the pandemic has expired.

Republicans who control the Legislature didn’t agree to extend the emergency declaration, which automatically expired after 60 days, so Evers issued subsequent ones. Evers has argued he can issue multiple emergency declarations because the threat of the pandemic changes over time, much as a river may flood multiple times in one season. 

State law allows the Legislature to end a governor’s health emergency with a majority vote. The governor can’t veto the measure, so there is no way for Evers to stop lawmakers from acting other than trying to persuade them.

Wearing face masks can greatly reduce a person’s chance of catching the COVID-19 virus, according to scientists and health experts.

President Joe Biden has recommended wearing a face mask in public for the next 100 days to try to tamp down outbreaks while vaccinations are underway but not yet widely available.

Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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