MADISON – Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday issued a new health emergency order requiring face masks in public indoor places just an hour after Wisconsin Republican lawmakers eliminated the same mandate.
GOP lawmakers in the Assembly voted Thursday to repeal the statewide mask rule by ending the governor’s health emergency order — the first measure passed by the Legislature in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 10 months.
But Evers put the mask requirement back in place almost immediately, saying he was doing so to avoid unnecessary risk to the public’s health. If Evers hadn’t acted, the state may have been at risk of losing tens of millions of dollars a month in federal food assistance without an emergency order in place.
“Wearing a mask is the most basic thing we can do to keep each other safe. If the Legislature keeps playing politics and we don’t keep wearing masks, we’re going to see more preventable deaths, and it’s going to take even longer to get our state and our economy back on track,” he said in a videotaped statement released with the new order.
“Dictator @GovEvers didn’t waste any time ignoring the will of the Legislature just like he continues to ignore state statute,” Sen. Julian Bradley, R-Franklin, tweeted after the new order was issued.
Republican lawmakers like Bradley who pushed the repeal argue Evers didn’t have the authority to issue the order in the first place and that his mandate violates the state constitution — an allegation made in a lawsuit before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
But the Legislature’s move to eliminate the mandate also went against pleas from doctors, hospital administrators, nurses, teachers, dentists, small business owners and church leaders to keep the mandate in place to preserve its effects on public health and consumer confidence while the outbreak persists.
Track COVID-19 in Wisconsin: See the latest data on cases and the vaccine rollout
The mask order has broad support statewide, with nearly 70% of people backing it in a survey by the Marquette University Law School poll in August.
“There is nothing redemptive of this resolution. If you pass this, you don’t save a single life,” Rep. Robyn Vining, D-Wauwatosa, said on the floor of the Assembly chamber before lawmakers voted to end Evers’ emergency order.
“I’m incredibly distraught that we have reached a point in political discourse in Wisconsin that stares death in the face, shrugs and says ‘But my political ideology,’ ” Vining said.
Seven Republicans joined all Democrats in opposing the resolution, which passed 52-42. The Senate passed the same resolution last week. Evers can’t veto such measures.
The Republicans who voted with the Democrats were Joel Kitchens of Sturgeon Bay, Jeffrey Mursau of Crivitz, Todd Novak of Dodgeville, Loren Oldenburg of Viroqua, Jessie Rodriguez of Oak Creek, David Steffen of Green Bay and Ron Tusler of Harrison.
Debate over emergency powers
Wisconsin law allows governors to declare emergencies for up to 60 days and allows legislators to make them longer. Lawmakers haven’t extended any of Evers’ health emergencies, so he’s been issuing new orders when older ones expire. Republicans argue he doesn’t have that power because the orders are tied to the same pandemic.
Evers argues he has the authority because the COVID-19 emergency is akin to flooding events of the same river and requires new responses.
“I know you want to make it about masks. It’s not. It’s about the rule of law,” Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said. “He wants to be able to rule by fiat. And whatever his intentions are, no matter how pure they may be, that is not how our system works.”
Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, who authored the resolution passed Thursday, said he would draft a new resolution to end the new order from the governor, too. But Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu in a statement Thursday indicated he wouldn’t support the effort.
“Now that the Legislature has affirmatively exercised our authority under (state law) to revoke the overreach of executive emergency powers, we urge the Supreme Court of Wisconsin to end this constitutional crisis,” LeMahieu said.
Rodriguez, the Oak Creek Republican, said she agrees with her GOP colleagues on the resolution in principle but voted against the resolution because of its timing.
“Having personally spoken to constituents who are concerned about the slow vaccine rollout, my concern is that the timing of this joint resolution could send mixed messages to the public concerning our priorities,” she said.
Wisconsin Medical Society Chief Executive Officer Bud Chumbley, whose organization represents doctors, said the Legislature’s repeal “sends the wrong message at the wrong time,” when less than 10% of the state’s population is vaccinated against COVID-19 and new, more contagious variants of the virus are emerging.
Just before Assembly lawmakers met on the floor Thursday, the GOP lawmakers sent Evers a letter asking him to instead use a legislative process known as rulemaking to implement new mask requirements.
But the Senate GOP chairman of the committee that oversees such proposals immediately shot down the idea.
Republicans in the state Senate last week voted to end Evers’ emergency declaration. Assembly Republicans were prepared to take the same vote but backed off after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the plan would cause the state to lose tens of millions of dollars a month in federal aid for its FoodShare program.
Congress last year approved giving states additional food assistance to low-income people because of the pandemic. But to get the extra help, states must have emergency declarations in place.
Assembly Republicans on Thursday amended a COVID-19 relief package in a way that Republicans believe would preserve the federal food assistance. The Senate plans to take up the amended bill on Friday.