MADISON — Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday issued a statewide mask mandate amid a spike in coronavirus cases, setting up a conflict with Republican legislative leaders and some conservatives who oppose such a requirement and successfully sued to kill the governor’s “safer at home” order.
Evers, a Democrat, declared a new public health emergency and ordered the wearing of masks for anyone age 5 and up starting on Saturday for all enclosed spaces except a person’s home. The new order also applies to outdoor bars and restaurants, except when people are eating or drinking.
Anyone who violates the order would be subject to a $200 fine. It is scheduled to run until Sept. 28.
“This virus doesn’t care about any town, city, or county boundary, and we need a statewide approach to get Wisconsin back on track,” Evers said in a statement, citing the recent rise in cases across the state.
The conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court in May tossed out an order from Evers’ health secretary closing most nonessential businesses in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he opposes a statewide mandate, but he indicated that he wouldn’t sue to stop it like he did the “safer at home” order.
“There are certainly constitutional questions here,” Vos said. “I would expect legal challenges from citizen groups.”
Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which has sued Evers several times, said the governor “lacks the legal authority” to issue the order. Esenberg stopped short of promising a lawsuit, saying he was reviewing it.
Republican state Sen. Steve Nass, one of the Legislature’s most conservative members, called for lawmakers to meet in an emergency session to kill the order, which he called “illegal and unnecessary.” Evers said he would welcome the Legislature meeting to address the pandemic, which it hasn’t done since mid-April. But he said it was a “sad commentary” that Nass wanted to reconvene just to kill the mask order.
“Obviously he doesn’t believe that masks matter,” Evers said. “That’s fine, he can be one of those people that flouts the order. But to come in and have the Republicans say essentially we don’t believe in science, it’s pretty risky business. It’s risky political business and risky health business.”
Vos did not say whether the Legislature would reconvene to kill the order.
Evers has repeatedly cited the earlier Supreme Court ruling as a reason for his reluctance to join 32 other states that have mask mandates. However, the May ruling determined that the state health secretary overstepped her authority with the “safer at home” order; the court did not address the governor’s power to issue public health emergencies.
The state’s high court was controlled 5-2 by conservatives when it struck down the earlier order on a split 4-3 decision. But on Saturday, when the mask order takes effect, Justice-elect Jill Karofsky will join the court, narrowing the conservative majority to 4-3 and increasing the odds of the order surviving a legal challenge.
Evers said the rise in COVID-19 cases, not Karofsky’s joining the court, and the fact that not enough people wore masks voluntarily motivated him to act now. Evers had been under pressure from local governments, and even some Democrats, to issue a statewide order. Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson, of Milwaukee, started a petition for a statewide mandate.
“The bottom line is we need to keep people safe and this is one way to do it,” he said. “We hope the Supreme Court agrees with us. You never know, it may never end up in the Supreme Court.”
Numerous cities and counties across Wisconsin have already instituted mask mandates, including Milwaukee and Dane counties, Green Bay, Racine, Superior and Whitewater. Evers’ order doesn’t preempt local governments from enacting even stricter ordinances.
Wisconsin has had more than 52,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 919 deaths from the disease since the pandemic started. That death count is the 28th-highest in the country and the 35th highest per capita, at nearly 16 deaths per 100,000 people. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has gone up by 90, an increase of more than 11%.
The virus, although still heavily concentrated in urban areas, is spreading to more rural counties that had largely avoided the disease.
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Don’t let the outside fool you. Wittich Hall at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse is scheduled to open soon after a $25 million renovation with modern design and a nod to the past.
You’ll find the gymnasium floor in upper levels of the building, honoring the original physical education building that opened in 1916.
You’ll see tile from the old pool on a few office walls.
But you’ll also find modern touches for the new home of the College of Business Administration, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and Small Development Center, which are relocating from Wimberly Hall.
UW-L Professor Emeritus AB Culver, a 1967 UW-L master’s degree graduate who completed her thesis on Walter Wittich, for whom the building was named, believes he would approve of the renovation.
“(Wittich) would be very happy to see the results of the restoration of the skylights in the roof, walking track and other historic aspects of the building,” Culver says. “He would be honored to see how much care and effort has been going into keeping Wittich Hall visible and relevant in the future of UW-La Crosse.”
A wall to honor Wittich is being developed as a final touch to the building.
La Crosse County COVID-19 cases climbed by 14 Thursday, bringing the total to 780 lab-confirmed positives.
The newest cases are attributed to one teen, eight individuals in their 20s, two in their 30s, one in their 50s and two in their 70s.
Of all the cases, 663 are considered recovered and six patients are currently being hospitalized. There has been one death related to the virus. An additional 169 tests came back negative Thursday, for a running total of 16,457.
In Wisconsin, cases increased by 1,059, bringing the count to 52,108. Hospitalizations from the coronavirus rose by 51 for a running total of 4,590 and eight more deaths were reported for 919 total fatalities. Negative test results total 867,602, up 16,211 from yesterday.
While July 21 marked the state’s largest daily case increase at 1,117 positives, Thursday brought the second highest 24-hour total.
With cases on the rise, Gundersen Health System and Mayo Clinic Health System offered praise for Gov. Ever’s issuance of a statewide mask mandate, set to begin Saturday.
The La Crosse County Health Department declined to comment on the decision Thursday, with a representative telling the Tribune there are no plans to issue a statement Thursday or Friday. The next La Crosse County Health Department COVID-19 briefing will occur at 2:30 p.m. Monday.
Megan Meller, infection control specialist for Gundersen Health System, says she is “very happy” with the requirement of face coverings, noting she “definitely wished it would have happened sooner” but is grateful action is being taken now, especially with the impending school year.
The mandate timeline — currently, it is set to expire Sept. 28 — is a good start, she says, though it will need to be re-evaluated and potentially extended dependent on the local pandemic status.
Meller acknowledges that the mask issue has been divisive, and is appreciative of the individuals and businesses that have already been adhering to what was previously suggested but unrequired guidance from health professionals and entities.
She hopes those who were reticent before will take the mandate seriously, saying, “I think the community is going in the right direction, and I think this might change the mindset” of those who have been resisting.
Local and state officials have authorization to enforce the order, with a potential fine of up to $200 for violators, though individuals with medical exemptions “are not required to carry documentation to prove that you do not need to wear a face covering in public,” according to the mandate.
“I’m proud of Wisconsin for issuing a mandate...I think we’ve always been a forward-thinking state and a forward-thinking community,” Meller says. Face masking, she emphasizes, is not a political issue.
“It’s being done to protect the good of everyone,” Meller says.
Both Gundersen and Mayo have for months been requiring the wearing of face masks by all patients, visitors and staff in their facilities, and both Meller and Dr. Paul Mueller, regional vice president for Mayo Clinic Health System in Southwest Wisconsin, cite evidence that doing so is effective in diminishing transmission of the coronavirus.
Mueller says in addition to having employees masked while at work, “We are asking our staff to lead by example when they are in public because we know this is one of the best ways to protect one another from contracting the disease. In addition to wearing facemasks, we recommend social distancing, avoiding large crowds if possible, scrupulous hand hygiene and regular cleaning of frequently-used contact surfaces to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Our region, and state, Mueller says, “are healthier when we help and support one another and ensure that all are safe during these challenging times. We are proud to partner with organizations in the communities we serve and support efforts to increase the use of face masks as an effective public health measure.”
In addition to the wearing of face coverings, the La Crosse County Health Department urges community members to practice physical distancing and to stay at home as much as possible. Those with any potential symptoms of COVID-19, including fever, chills, runny nose, congestion, muscle or body aches, cough, tiredness, headache, new loss of taste or smell, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, are asked to stay home and contact their provider for testing.
MADISON — Wisconsin’s Republican legislative leaders and the state’s longest-serving Republican in Congress broke with President Donald Trump on Thursday when he floated the idea of delaying the Nov. 3 presidential election.
Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald all said separately that they opposed delaying the election, a date that is enshrined in federal law and would require an act of Congress to change, including agreement from the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.
“The election should not be delayed,” Sensenbrenner said in a statement. “The 20th amendment sets the terms of the election and is clear. The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January.”
Steineke was direct in his tweet in reaction to Trump: “Hard NO.”
Vos referenced Wisconsin Republicans’ opposition to the call from Democrats earlier this year to delay the April presidential primary election because of the pandemic.
“We shouldn’t delay the November election either,” Vos tweeted. “Elections need to happen for democracy to function.”
Fitzgerald, a staunch Trump backer who is running for Congress, tweeted that he also opposed moving the election. Fitzgerald had sued Wisconsin’s Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to stop a delay in the state’s April election.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin tweeted at Trump that “the election is not going to be delayed. The American people are going to vote and take back our Democracy to bring about the change they want and need.”
Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a staunch Trump supporter, did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, one of the most liberal members of Congress, called Trump a “fascist” in a tweet stating his opposition to an election delay.
“Only Congress can delay the election, and we won’t be doing it just so a fascist can preserve his power,” Pocan said.
Trump tweeted Thursday: “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”
Trump’s allegations that increased mail-in voting will result in fraud are unsubstantiated.
In Wisconsin, voters can mail in absentee ballots or cast them in person ahead of the election. As of Thursday, more than 813,000 people had requested absentee ballots for Wisconsin’s upcoming Aug. 11 statewide primary, which includes legislative and congressional races. That exceeds the 645,619 total votes cast in the 2016 primary.
Of those requested, about 290,000, or 36%, had been returned, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
This story was updated to correct the spelling of Jim Sensenbrenner’s name. It had been misspelled “Sensenbrener.”