Wisconsin Assembly halts vote to repeal mask mandate
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Assembly on Thursday abruptly canceled a vote to repeal Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ mask mandate in the face of broad criticism from the state’s health, school and business leaders and out of concern it would jeopardize more than $49 million a month in federal aid.
Speaker Robin Vos said the Assembly was “hitting the pause button” and could return as soon as next week to repeal the mask ban. In the meantime, Vos said he wanted to be sure that the move could be made without losing the federal money.
“We don’t want to rush into anything,” Vos said after the session during a virtual event hosted by WisPolitics.com.
The mask resolution had been moving quickly through the Legislature. It was introduced last week, not subject to a public hearing, and was passed by the Senate on Tuesday.
Democratic Minority Leader Gordon Hintz heralded the pause. “It’s a win for the public, a win for public health,” Hintz said.
The surprise change in direction for the Assembly came after news broke hours before the scheduled vote that repealing the governor’s emergency health order and undoing the mask mandate would also jeopardize federal food assistance for low-income people. The COVID-19 aid bill passed by Congress last year gives states the federal money but only if they have emergency health orders in effect, a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said.
This month alone, nearly 243,000 Wisconsin households received $49.3 million in federal assistance, the memo said.
Vos said he wasn’t aware of the issue until he saw reports about it being raised by the Hunger Task Force in Milwaukee.
“I hate being caught by surprise,” Vos said. “We usually don’t have that happen in the Legislature.”
The Senate tried to fix the problem. It passed a bill Thursday with a provision that would give the governor authority to issue emergency health orders only for the purpose of accessing the federal money. But that was attached to a larger COVID-19 bill that was at risk of an Evers veto because it contains provisions that would prohibit employers from mandating workers get vaccinated and give Republican legislators control over federal COVID-19 relief dollars.
Vos said he thought that bill would solve the problem, but wanted to make sure before scheduling the mask mandate repeal for a vote.
Wisconsin has had a statewide mask mandate since August. It is scheduled to run until March 20.
Republican lawmakers contend that Evers exceeded his authority by issuing multiple health emergencies and mask orders rather than asking the Legislature for approval every 60 days. That issue is also being argued before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
More than 40 public health organizations, as well as state and local health officials, urged the Legislature to reconsider the vote. Wearing masks is one of the pillars of recommendations from health experts worldwide to slow the spread of the coronavirus, along with physically distancing, washing hands and avoiding crowds.
The Legislature has fought Evers over his response to the pandemic from the beginning. Republicans supported a lawsuit that resulted in the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturning Evers’ “safer at home” order in May. Conservatives also succeeded in blocking capacity limits Evers established for bars, restaurants and other establishments, a case that is now before the state’s highest court.
Republicans also blame Evers for the slow vaccine rollout, but the governor has said the frustrating pace is due to the federal government not supplying enough to meet demand. The latest update from the DHS on Tuesday said the federal government has allocated 846,300 doses so far, and more than half of these have been administered: 162,000 of these are designated for the federal Pharmacy Partnership Program and Wisconsin ordered 641,150.
Also on Thursday, the Assembly passed a bill that would require immediately prioritizing the vaccination of everyone over age 60. Currently, only those over age 65 are eligible. Under the bill, the general public would be eligible no later than March 15.
It also voted in favor of allowing pharmacy students and pharmacy technicians to administer the vaccine.
Both measures now go to the Senate.
The Senate passed a broader COVID-19 response bill that included the purported fix to the loss of federal money, a prohibition on employers mandating vaccines for workers and gives the Legislature control over federal money to fight the pandemic. Evers had endorsed a more limited version of the bill without those provisions.
The Assembly was expected to give final approval of the bill, which would send it to Evers, next week, Vos said.
Evers’ spokeswoman did not immediately return a message about whether he would sign the bill.
CLICK HERE to to read the amended bill.
The GOP faced pushback from health care groups, hospital groups, school groups and religious groups for considering repealing the mask mandate. It would make Wisconsin one of 10 states to have no masking order. Prevea Health President and CEO Dr. Ashok Rai said a mask mandate repeal would lead to more deaths in Wisconsin.
“You look at what’s going on with COVID right now. I just got our hospital numbers overnight. Second highest bump in admissions that I’ve seen in a couple weeks. Over 4,000 people in the country died yesterday. That’s more than 9/11, and that’s been happening every day for days. We’re over 400,000 in this country who’ve passed away. We have a new variant in this country called B.1.1.7, initially started in England, and it spreads much faster. And when we talk about spreading much faster, that means more people will get infected and more people will die in that situation. From the federal government and scientists who work for the CDC to your local physicians, Wisconsin Medical Society, and those who work in the hospital, the Wisconsin Hospital Association, those who take care of this entire state when it comes to health care, have said that we need a mask mandate. Do not vote to undo this. I understand the politics of this. You don’t like how it was done. If you’re in the legislature and you don’t like the governor and how it was done, that’s fine. Argue among yourselves and find out a solution. Pass a new mask mandate. Don’t get rid of one. Do one that you like, I guess, however the politics of this work. But this would be the worst time in history to undo something. It will truly result in more Wisconsin people losing their lives. It’s the wrong thing to do,” says Dr. Rai.