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Businesses, health agencies at odds over Wisconsin Republicans’ virus response bill

Published: Jan. 5, 2021 at 11:12 AM CST|Updated: Jan. 5, 2021 at 2:49 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s business community on Tuesday came out in support of a Republican-authored coronavirus response bill moving quickly through the Legislature that is opposed by public health officials and Democrats.

The measure, introduced on Monday and slated to pass as soon as Thursday, appears likely to be vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who sponsored the bill, testified that it was a “good faith effort to compromise with Gov. Evers.” But the proposal is not the compromise Evers or Democrats had been looking for and far from what Evers had put forward last month. Evers’ spokeswoman Britt Cudaback called the bill “disappointing” while Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Gordon Hintz called it a “politically divisive bill that prioritizes the wishes of their special interest backers over the public health needs and economic challenges of Wisconsinites.”

The Wisconsin Restaurant Association, the state and Milwaukee chambers of commerce, the Wisconsin Grocers Association and others were among those in support of the measure that gives immunity to businesses from civil liability claims related to COVID-19. The bill would also bar the state or local health officials from closing businesses for more than two weeks at a time if the virus spikes — a restriction businesses support.

Kristine Hillmer, president of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, said restaurants across the state had become “major fall guys” during the pandemic and many face closure and the threat of lawsuits. She spoke in favor of granting restaurants immunity from lawsuits.

But Heath Straka, a Madison attorney representing the Wisconsin Association for Justice, said there have been no lawsuits brought against businesses to date because they are so difficult to prove. He said the exemption proposed was too broad and would serve as an incentive for businesses not to provide adequate protection against the coronavirus.

The Wisconsin Public Health Association and the Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards also opposed the bill, saying it would limit their ability to respond to the virus. They objected both to limits placed on how long businesses could be closed and a prohibition on mandating vaccination against COVID-19.

“The middle of a pandemic is no time to limit the work of local health officers,” the two groups said in a statement.

The Wisconsin Medical Society also opposed the bill’s prohibition on employers requiring that workers receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Vaccinations are safe, effective and are often the best tool to combat harmful disease,” Mark Grapentine, chief policy officer for the group that represents doctors, said in prepared testimony.

The Assembly Health Committee planned to vote on the bill after the hearing. Committee approval will set up a vote on passage in the Assembly, where Republicans have a 60-38 majority, on Thursday. The GOP-controlled Senate could also approve it then, which would send the bill to Evers.

That would make it the first bill passed this session, which began Monday.

Republicans and Evers have been unable to agree on COVID-19 response measures since the Legislature last passed a bill nine months ago, early in the pandemic. Evers has been talking privately with Republicans for weeks, trying to reach a compromise.

Democrats object to numerous provisions in the bill, including the lawsuit immunity, closure limitations and giving the Republican-controlled Legislature control over future federal coronavirus funding.

The sweeping GOP bill also would:

  • bar employers or health officials from mandating the COVID-19 vaccine;
  • require school boards to approve virtual instruction with a two-thirds majority vote ever two weeks;
  • prohibit the state Department of Health Services from limiting public gatherings at churches;
  • and allow residents at long-term care facilities one visitor

The proposal extends the waiver of a one-week waiting period to obtain unemployment benefits until March, rather than until July as Evers wants. It would also require the state Department of Workforce Development to develop a plan within a month to address a backlog of unemployment insurance claims.

The number of positive COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin peaked in mid-November and has been declining since. The average number of new daily cases over the last seven days was 2,401 on Tuesday. That was a fraction of the mid-November peak, but above the 1,934 average from last week.

To date, more than 491,000 Wisconsin residents have tested positive and 4,979 have died, the state Department of Health Services reported Tuesday.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.