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Gov. Evers signs new mask order shortly after lawmakers’ repeal

Several local Republican lawmakers voted with Democrats against the repeal
Published: Feb. 3, 2021 at 10:06 AM CST|Updated: Feb. 4, 2021 at 10:37 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WBAY) - Democratic Gov. Tony Evers signed a new executive order Thursday afternoon requiring face coverings in public places and issued new public health emergency order an hour after Republican lawmakers repealed his last mask mandate.

The governor’s orders are effective immediately, essentially meaning nothing has changed in Wisconsinites’ requirement to wear a mask in spite of the lawmakers’ votes.

Evers said in a video message that his priority is keeping people safe and that wearing a mask was the most basic way to do that.

Republicans haven’t said whether they’ll challenge this latest action. Earlier Thursday afternoon, the Wisconsin Assembly passed an amendment to repeal the previous mask mandate issued by Gov. Evers, which would have caused the mandate to expire on Friday. The vote was 52-42.

Republicans in the majority claimed the governor does not have legal standing to issue such public health orders. Four Republicans from Northeast Wisconsin joined Democrats in voting against the repeal.

Wisconsin would be one of 10 states without a mask order.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and other Republican leaders stated during Thursday’s floor session that the repeal is not about masks but about the governor’s powers and the law.

“I know you want to make it about masks. It’s not. It’s about the rule of law,” said Kaukauna Republican Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-District 5).

Steineke says he supports wearing a mask but private businesses should also be able to decide whether it’s something they want to enforce. Instead, he prefers a more targeted approach which would include places like hospitals, nursing homes, government buildings, and schools.

“We are asking to work with the governor. Fifty-five of our members sent a letter to him asking him to put forward a rule that will continue to require masks in certain situations, and I certainly hope he will follow through on that,” he said.

Wisconsin Assembly COVID bill vote

#FirstAlert: The Wisconsin Assembly is meeting to vote on COVID-19 measures--including the mask order repeal.

Posted by WBAY TV-2 on Thursday, February 4, 2021

Not all Republicans supported the repeal. Joining the Democrats were Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-District 1), Rep. Jeffrey Mursau (R-District 36), Rep. David Steffen (R-District 4) and Rep. Ron Tusler (R-District 3).

“I don’t want to send a message to folks that they shouldn’t wear a mask, and to me, I don’t know that this vote was accomplishing anything because I don’t think the governor really had the authority to do a mandate in the first place,” Rep. Tusler told Action 2 News in an interview.

The four Northeast Wisconsin lawmakers explained their vote in a letter, saying they believe this is an issue for the judicial branch, not the legislative branch. They cited the dozens of health organizations that opposed the move and the risk of losing federal FoodShare money if the state doesn’t have an emergency plan in place.

“We, the undersigned, believe that Gov. Evers’ continued issuance of emergency order extensions, including his mask mandate, is likely illegal. However, it is the responsibility of the judicial branch – not the legislative branch – to make that determination. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has had this case for more than two months and we implore them to make a ruling as to whether or not the governor had the authority to issue his most recent order without legislative approval.

We need that legal clarity, because without it, the governor could continue to implement additional emergency orders every time the full Legislature passes a resolution, including SJR 3. This potential never-ending cycle of orders and resolutions would certainly be detrimental to the spirit of compromise, especially now when we are trying to focus our energies on agreeing to a comprehensive COVID-19 relief package that everyone can get behind.

Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision on this case, we are asking the governor to issue his mask guidance through the normal, legal administrative rule process, thus allowing the Legislature to appropriately and constitutionally provide input on this important matter. Mask-wearing has become entirely too political and working with the Legislature in a bipartisan manner would certainly contribute to public acceptance and compliance.

Until we are able to reach an agreement, we do not believe it is prudent to remove the emergency order and mask mandate. More than 50 organizations representing the healthcare industry, businesses and churches have asked that we not remove the mandate at this time. We find it impossible to ignore the overwhelming concerns of these groups.

Furthermore, our research has shown that Wisconsin may potentially lose $49 million per month in enhanced FoodShare benefits for low-income families and seniors if we do not have an emergency plan in place. While a proposal has been brought forward to work around this predicament, it is shaky at best. As a final and future concern shared by the undersigned, we fully expect the Biden administration to require a statewide mask mandate as a condition of receiving future federal CARES Act funding.

While no one enjoys wearing a mask, it is a very temporary and relatively minor inconvenience. To the best of our knowledge, there has not been a single resident who has been cited for not wearing a mask under Evers’ order. With so much at stake, from both a healthcare and financial standpoint, and so much that is unknown at this time, we believe that it would be irresponsible to repeal the mandate now without a proper alternative.

The end of the COVID-19 pandemic is well within sight. If we can be smart and behave responsibly, we will return to a life that is close to normal by summer. Now is not the time to further politicize this issue. We encourage Gov. Evers to work with the Legislature so we can come up with a strategy that we can all support and see across the finish line."

Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-District 1), Rep. Jeffrey Mursau (R-District 36), Rep. David Steffen (R-District 4) and Rep. Ron Tusler (R-District 3)

The Assembly was expected to repeal the governor’s emergency order last week, but found such an action would jeopardize millions of dollars of emergency federal funding. The Wisconsin Senate had added an amendment to the Assembly bill that would grant the governor power to issue an executive order declaring a public health emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic for receiving federal emergency funds.

The Senate amendment, however, did not include language limiting the governor’s emergency powers. “As we did our due diligence, legislative attorneys and conservative legal experts confirmed the Senate amendment had unintended consequences and would actually expand the governor’s emergency powers,” says Vos.

During Thursday’s floor session, Democrats introduced an amendment to the Coronavirus Relief Bill that would tie the mask mandate to a federal health emergency decree. Republicans voted it down.

Fox Valley Rep. Lee Snodgrass (D-Appleton) says that shows “It is about the masks.”

“We had over sixty organizations register against overturning the mandate, zero for overturning the mandate, and I’ve heard from constituents all my district and others how important it is to keep this mandate in place,” Rep. Snodgrass said.

The Wisconsin State Senate has called an Extraordinary Session for Friday to concur on the passage of the amendment and send the Coronavirus Relief Bill to Gov. Evers’ desk.

The Senate says it decided to call the Extraordinary Session because a bill must be signed into law before Sunday in order to receive federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistant benefits.

“I thank the Speaker and my Assembly colleagues for taking action today and working in concert with us to deliver real results for the people of Wisconsin,” says Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg).

“Tomorrow, the Senate will meet in Extraordinary Session to concur in the Assembly amendment to AB 1, sending a unified Coronavirus Relief Bill to the Governor’s desk for signature. This is a true consensus bill and we expect a quick signature to preserve the enhanced federal UI benefits which will expire Sunday without this law change.”

Democrats were critical of the quick action taken by Republicans. Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) tweeted, “For 294 days, Republicans don’t do jack for UI, racial injustice, and tangible COVID relief but they’ll go into extraordinary session to eliminate mask wearing.”

Prior to the Assembly Floor session Thursday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and other Republicans sent the governor a letter asking him to introduce rules on masking for the legislature to review. The letter reads:

“The Wisconsin state law does not allow the Legislature to introduce rules for adoption. Only a governor or their agencies may do that action. We therefore are asking you to please introduce rules to the Legislature for our review that will do the following:

1) Enact reasonable masking requirements in places in Wisconsin that are susceptible to transmission of the virus to those who are especially vulnerable, such as health care facilities, nursing homes, mass transit, state government buildings, assisted living facilities, public schools, universities, and prisons.

2) Allow any private or public entity in the state that would like to require face masking to be allowed to do so on their property.

3) Require the Department of Health Services to pay for COVID-19 tests that anyone may take, free of charge, paid for by the state of Wisconsin.

4) The rules would be in place and reviewed by JCRAR every 30 days for any necessary modifications and would stay in place until a majority of eligible Wisconsinites are voluntarily vaccinated.”

Vos concludes, “If you send the rules to our chamber, we give you our assurance that they will be reviewed fairly and judiciously. Our goal would be to have the rules become effective before our floor period in February so when the unlawful public health order is overturned, there will not be any gap in the masking requirement for those spaces where we can agree face coverings provide the most benefit for our residents.”

It’s unclear if the governor supports the rules action.

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Numerous health, school and emergency agencies have objected to the Republican plan to repeal the mask order.

Prevea Health President & CEO Dr. Ashok Rai says such a move would result in more loss of life.

“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.

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