Republicans will renew their effort to end Wisconsin’s mask mandate this week, despite public support for it

MADISON – Republican lawmakers are seeking to end Wisconsin’s mask requirement to appeal to their base, even though polls show the policy is broadly popular.

Their effort could put at risk tens of millions of dollars a month in federal food assistance and complicate Republicans’ hopes of defeating Democratic Gov. Tony Evers next year.

And if Republicans succeed in ending the mask requirement, Evers can quickly put it back into effect. That would force a new standoff with lawmakers, but for the time being, would allow Evers to keep in place a policy that health officials say saves lives.

But Republicans argue they must act because they believe the governor has overstepped his bounds. They say they have to put a stop to Evers trying to exercise powers that they contend he doesn’t have. 

State law allows governors to issue emergency orders for up to 60 days. Republican legislators declined to extend his initial order and rebuffed state rules he wrote to implement COVID-19 policies. In response, Evers has acted on his own, issuing new orders every 60 days to extend the mask requirement.

The Senate voted to end the mask requirement Tuesday and the Assembly was on track to do the same on Thursday. But Assembly leaders pulled back from the effort on Thursday after the Journal Sentinel reported that ending the emergency order would likely cause the state to lose $49 million a month in federal food assistance that goes to low-income people, including those who lost their jobs during the pandemic. 

Track COVID-19 in Wisconsin: See the latest data on cases and the vaccine rollout

More: What we know about Wisconsin’s COVID-19 vaccine plan, what groups will get it and when

Republicans are hearing from a vocal contingent of mask opponents, but support for Wisconsin’s mask requirement is broad. 

In October, 72% of Wisconsin voters polled by the Marquette University Law School said they supported requiring masks in public places. That included 47% of Republicans, two-thirds of independents and virtually all Democrats. More than 50 organizations representing the health-care industry, schools, businesses and others have registered against the repeal. 

“I think a mask mandate is an incredibly clear message about the importance of wearing masks,” said Patrick Remington, who served as an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mask requirements make it easier for businesses and others to ask people to wear face coverings when there is a government policy that requires them, he said.

“We had the same debate 30 years ago about requiring children (to be) put into car seats and adults to wear seat belts,” he said. “For many people that was really government overreach and they refused. Over time that becomes pretty normative and people accept seat belts are the right thing to do and it’s not that inconvenient and it saves lives.”

Political messaging on COVID

Evers has overseen a vaccine rollout that has been one of the slowest in the country. Republicans have pounced on the vaccine distribution problems, but their messaging could get muddied because of their effort to eliminate the mask requirement. 

A common refrain among Republicans is that their push to end the mask requirement is not actually about masks, but rather about the powers of the governor.

It’s a complicated argument that doesn’t lend itself to bumper stickers and tweets, and it’s one Evers and others are quick to rebut by noting Republican lawmakers argued in court against the mask requirement and refused to take up the COVID-19 rules he submitted to them.

The latest wrinkle in the Republicans’ plan came late Wednesday, when they learned they were putting federal aid at risk. Congress last year approved a law that provides states with far more money for food stamps if they have declared public health emergencies. 

By ending Evers’ health order, Republicans would prevent $49 million a month from flowing to about 243,000 households in Wisconsin. Some low-income senior citizens could see their benefits cut from $204 a month to $16 a month. 

Because of the situation, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester called off Thursday’s vote. But he said he would likely reschedule it for this week because he believes Republican Sen. Steve Nass of Whitewater has found a way to preserve the food stamp funding with separate legislation. 

“We don’t want to rush into anything even though this has been a long time coming and I really believe that we should get this done. I also want to be smart about it,” Vos said during a forum hosted by WisPolitics.com on Thursday.

After a few days of research, “we’ll be able to do it knowing full well that the actions we’re taking are legal, they work and also they don’t hurt the taxpayer,” Vos said.

Under the plan, the Assembly as early as Tuesday would end the emergency order, which would immediately cut off the food assistance. The Assembly would also approve the separate legislation, which includes a provision that would establish a limited emergency that they say would allow the state to receive the food stamp funding.

That provision is included in a COVID-19 package that Evers has threatened to veto because of a number of elements he opposes.

In short, Republicans plan to end the state’s ability to collect large sums of federal funding and then try to force Evers to sign legislation he opposes to attempt to reclaim the federal money.

But Evers could change the dynamic of the fight by issuing a new public health order as soon as they revoke the existing one. That would at least for the moment restore the mask requirement and keep the federal funds coming to the state.

Evers on Friday told reporters it was too early for him to say whether he would do that.

“I’ve been a mask advocate from the beginning. It’s an easy thing to do because it saves lives,” he said. “I will continue to make that promise to the people of Wisconsin (that) we will do everything in our power to make sure they’re safe.

“I think it’s premature at this time (to say what will happen next). I know what the speaker said but until it’s done, it’s not done and we still have a mask mandate in the state of Wisconsin.”

Republicans would balk at Evers’ issuing a new health order. They would likely respond by once again voting down his order or taking him to court.

The first option could lead to more orders and more votes, putting in place a series of mask requirements that would be ended only to be quickly reinstated.

The second option would render an uncertain result, with a narrowly divided state Supreme Court determining whether the state could have a mask requirement.

The high court is already considering how much power Evers has during the pandemic. The justices could rule within weeks. 

Molly Beck of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.