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Politics & Government

Wisconsin Governor Issues New Mask Order After Assembly Vote

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Jack Hurbanis
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Sign reminding entrants of Grace Lutheran Church in downtown Milwaukee to wear a mask.

Updated 4:36 p.m. CST

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued a new statewide mask order on Thursday, an hour after the Republican-controlled Legislature voted to repeal his previous mandate saying he didn't have authority to make such a decree.

Evers and the Legislature have been at odds throughout the pandemic but the latest moves created an unprecedented level of whiplash. Republican lawmakers last year persuaded the state Supreme Court to scrap Evers' stay-at-home order and a state appeals court halted the limits he placed on indoor gatherings.

As the Legislature moved to repeal the order, many cities and counties rushed to enact or extend local mask ordinances. Milwaukee and Dane County, where Madison is located, are among those with orders in place.

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

“If the Legislature keeps playing politics and we don’t keep wearing masks, we’re going to see more preventable deaths, and it’s going to take even longer to get our state and our economy back on track,” Evers said.

Republican state Sen. Steve Nass, who led the push to repeal the order, accused Evers of being a “lawless governor.” Nass said he was drafting another resolution to repeal the new order and was considering asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to take emergency action.

The Supreme Court could end the legislative back and forth with a ruling in a pending case that says Evers must secure lawmakers’ approval every 60 days. The court could also say he doesn’t need approval, thus forcing the Legislature to repeal every order Evers issues if it wants to stop him.

The attorney who argued in the case to undo Evers' order, Rick Esenberg, said "it is now incumbent upon the courts to rein in this abuse of power.”

The Republican position is in stark contrast to a diverse coalition of doctors, nurses, hospitals, health departments, schools, chambers of commerce, pharmacists, churches, firefighters and others who urged keeping the mask order in place.

Dr. Bud Chumbley, head of the Wisconsin Medical Society, blasted the Assembly’s vote to repeal, saying it “sends the wrong message at the wrong time.”

“Instead, we need all of our policy leaders to unify behind the same message: wear a mask to protect yourself and others, prevent additional deaths and restore our economy,” he said in a statement.

Health experts say masks may be the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has killed nearly 6,000 Wisconsinites, and that a repeal risks creating confusion and sending the wrong message about the importance of masks.

“We should be wearing masks,” said Democratic state Rep. Robyn Vining. “Masks save lives.”

Republicans say the issue isn’t about masks, but whether Evers can legally issue multiple emergency health orders during the pandemic. The Legislature argues he can’t, and must secure their approval every 60 days. Evers contends the changing nature of the pandemic allowed him to issue multiple orders and mask mandates.

“I know you want to make it about masks. It’s not,” said Republican Majority Leader Jim Steineke. “It’s about the rule of law.”

The Assembly voted 52-42 to repeal the mandate, with seven Republicans joining all Democrats in opposition.

The vote came a week after the Senate voted to kill the mandate. Republicans, who control both chambers, argued that Evers exceeded his authority by repeatedly extending the mask mandate without legislative approval. The repeal hadn’t even taken effect before Evers issued a new one.

The coronavirus has ebbed in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the U.S., but health experts have warned of a continuing danger, including the emergence of new and more contagious variants. All of Wisconsin’s neighboring states have some form of mask mandate, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.

Prior to Thursday’s vote, Assembly Republicans sent Evers a letter saying they would support a more limited mask mandate that applies to places “susceptible to transmission of the virus.” Republicans said that includes health care facilities, nursing homes, mass transit, state government buildings, assisted living facilities, public schools, universities and prisons.

The Assembly also passed a bill that contains a provision designed to ensure the state doesn’t lose about $50 million a month that pays for food stamp benefits for roughly 243,000 low-income people in the state. Federal law requires there to be an emergency health order in place to receive the money. The Senate planned to meet Friday to approve the bill, sending it to Evers.

Evers has not said whether he will sign the bill.

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