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Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes: After court ruling, state could 'lose all the progress'

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes: After court ruling, state could 'lose all the progress'

From the The pandemic hits home: Keep up with the latest La Crosse area news on COVID-19 series

Wisconsinites woke up Thursday to local officials trying to determine how to patchwork a fight against COVID-19, after the state Supreme Court ruled against Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order.

The court ruled Wednesday against the stay-at-home measures, which were set to expire in less than two weeks, citing it was an overreach of power.

Almost immediately, some counties and cities across the state announced their own orders, keeping residents and businesses restricted.

But in La Crosse County, officials announced Thursday morning that they wouldn’t be enforcing its own order, but would instead be relying on the community to make their own decisions on staying safe.

But state officials fear that regional approaches might lead to more confusion for Wisconsinites, and ultimately set the state back in its fight against the disease.

“We’re already seeing the consequences, and that’s confusion. Confusion amongst the public, confusion in government, confusion in the business community,” Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes told the Tribune Thursday.

Specifically in La Crosse County — which borders Minnesota and several rural counties that rely on it for resources — the mixing of communities with different restrictions is worrisome, he said.

“It is my fear that people could potentially flock to those areas, or it will make it that much easier for the disease to spread,” he said. As an example, Barnes said residents might head to a neighboring county because a certain business is open there and not at home.

“And that is ultimately how you attract more people, and by attracting more people you run the risk of attracting infected people,” he said.

As the state drew its defense against the virus, lawmakers across the state posed the question of reopening certain regions sooner, specifically ones that were showing low case numbers.

But testing in rural areas is still not reaching all those infected, officials have reported, hiding the full picture of outbreaks in certain regions. And cutting the safer-at-home order short might only worsen that.

“The extra two weeks would have given people more time to take advantage of that, to get those tests, and then we would have had a more clear picture painted,” Barnes said.

The state now has the capacity to test 85,000 people a week, and in La Crosse County, which is still only testing about 28% of its capacity, hopes for a new testing site in conjunction with the State National Guard will boost those numbers.

But the spotlight is now on Wisconsin, as partisanship takes over the virus efforts, and Barnes said he believes the rhetoric is backtracking the state’s progress, and is coming straight from the top.

“From the beginning, the president, he minimized the whole situation, he called it a hoax, he pointed fingers, and he didn’t come up with a plan,” Barnes said, which has trickled down to state and local officials.

“So from the beginning, that is the message. That this isn’t really something you have to worry about. It stuck with people, and they turned something that couldn’t be less partisan into an issue to divide people among party lines,” he said.

But he said the state’s not alone, pointing to neighboring Midwest states like Michigan and Ohio that are also seeing protests and upheaval.

“It serves no good purpose to be hyper-partisan on an issue like this,” he said.

The state plans on issuing guidance for local and tribal governments on how to proceed in the coming months, according to Barnes, but it was unclear whether an alternative plan to the safer-at-home order was on its way.

“There hasn’t been an initial plan from Republicans aside from going to the Supreme Court to get rid of the order, with nothing in place or no ideas how to keep people safe,” Barnes said.

“And that’s the worst part about it,” he said, about the order being removed. “Without an alternative, it doesn’t make much sense.”

On Thursday, Republican lawmakers and Evers’ Administration planned to meet to pave a path forward.

But Barnes said he believes the small pause that this decision has given the state could be damaging in itself, even if a plan does eventually come down the pipeline.

“People would be amazed at how rapidly all of our hard work — and when I say our, I don’t mean the administration, I mean all the people across this state who did the right thing — they’d be amazed at how soon all of that could be unraveled, and we lose all the progress, and become worse off than we could have been,” he said.

“We’re talking about people’s real lives,” Barnes said, “and if nothing is going to be done to keep that in mind, then that puts Wisconsinites in a very tough spot.”

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