Tony Evers, GOP lawmakers begin conversations on new, more lenient COVID-19 rules

Tony Evers, GOP lawmakers begin conversations on new, more lenient COVID-19 rules

From the The pandemic hits home: Keep up with the latest La Crosse area news on COVID-19 series
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Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican-led Legislature say it’s unlikely the state will shut down businesses that have or plan to reopen after Wednesday’s court ruling against the governor’s stay-at-home order.

As a patchwork of county orders crop up across Wisconsin, it remains uncertain what a statewide COVID-19 plan might entail. What’s known is there’s little interest among GOP leaders to return to Evers’ stay-at-home order, which closed some businesses and limited services at others in an effort to minimize spread of the virus.

“The Badger Bounce Back Plan and any other plan that might have been out there that was a transition from the full shutdown to opening businesses up, that’s behind us now, that’s over with — the court resolved that,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said after a Thursday meeting with Evers and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

During a media call with reporters, Evers expressed frustration with the court ruling, but also said he doubts the state will return to any sort of rule that comes close to the “safer at home” order or Badger Bounce Back Plan, which included gating criteria for a slow reopening of the economy.

“The Supreme Court made it clear, this is not our gig,” Evers said.

The state’s first stay-at-home order went into place on March 25. Last month, Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm issued a subsequent order extending the restrictions until May 26. The Republican Legislature in April brought the lawsuit challenging that order.

In a 4-3 decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down the state’s stay-at-home order. The ruling did not strike down the portion of the order closing public and private K-12 schools, which will remain closed for the rest of the school year.

Despite successfully beating the governor’s order in court, GOP leaders have yet to unveil a formal proposal on a statewide COVID-19 response.

“We had a plan, they didn’t,” Evers said. “The court didn’t agree with our plan on shaky grounds.”

Republican leaders have said, with the lawsuit concluded, efforts on a bipartisan plan can now begin.

“No matter what we did to that angle, some people would criticize us for it,” said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna. “If we had come out with a Republican plan, they would criticize us for not working with the governor on our plan.”

However, the rule-making process could take weeks, which health officials worry could provide enough time for a second wave of positive COVID-19 cases.

In the absence of statewide regulations on business activity or gatherings, a handful of counties, including Dane, have enacted local orders that essentially mirror Evers’ “safer at home” rule.

“Those are decisions that should be done at the local level,” Steineke said. “If anything like that were to occur, it certainly wouldn’t be on a statewide basis.”

Both Fitzgerald and Steineke said they expect local orders to stand.

“I don’t see the state coming in and preempting the locals’ ability to respond to this crisis in the way that they see fit,” Steineke said.

Despite the court ruling, GOP leaders and Evers encouraged Wisconsinites to continue following safe practices.

“The Supreme Court may have changed the rules for how we operate, but it sure as heck hasn’t changed how the virus operates,” Evers said.

Heat on Palm

State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R–Minocqua, who earlier this week was elected to Congress, issued a statement calling for Palm’s resignation.

In a statement, Tiffany called Palm’s approach to the pandemic a “power grab” that exceeded her authority.

“Ms. Palm came here as Governor Evers’ hired gun, and she will leave with Wisconsin’s corpse if she continues,” he said.

Speaking with reporters, Evers defended Palm, whose appointment has not been approved by the full Senate.

“Sen. Tiffany please, you just won an election,” Evers said. “Just relax. This is an insane statement. We talk about trying to tone down the rhetoric and I’ve done everything I can do to that.”

Jobless claims?

Following the Supreme Court ruling, some Wisconsin businesses began reopening as early as Wednesday evening.

With some businesses reopening, employees who wish to stay home for fear of contracting the virus may no longer be eligible for unemployment benefits.

Emily Savard, program and policy analyst with the state Department of Workforce Development’s unemployment insurance division, said any such claimant seeking benefits will need to indicate that they are refusing to return to work.

The claims will be reviewed by the department to determine whether or not the individual still is eligible for benefits based on factors such as workplace practices to mitigate transmission of the virus or if the claimant has any underlying health issues.

“It gets into legal technicalities of their specific case and why it is they don’t feel safe,” Savard said. “That would be something that we would need to look into to see whether or not benefits would be payable.”

Savard said claims made before Wednesday’s ruling and federal benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation Program will not be affected by the court’s decision.

State Journal reporter Riley Vetterkind contributed to this report.

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