Updated at 3:33 p.m. CT
Wisconsin broke the record for new positive coronavirus cases on Friday for the third time in a week as a surge that began in early September shows no signs of abating.
The state also hit record highs for daily deaths and hospitalizations this week as a third lawsuit was filed arguing that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers had overstepped his authority by issuing public health emergencies and implementing a statewide mask mandate and capacity limits for bars and restaurants.
Evers on Friday launched a television ad criticizing Republicans for inaction, and the state's second-largest school district said students wouldn't be returning for in-person classes until late January at the earliest.
There were 3,861 new coronavirus cases reported in Wisconsin on Friday by the state Department of Health Services, breaking the previous record set just a day earlier of 3,747. To date, more than 166,000 people have tested positive and 1,574 have died. The seven-day average for new cases was 3,052, marking the first time it had topped 3,000.
There was also a record-high 1,043 people hospitalized as of Thursday. A field hospital to handle overflow patients opened near Milwaukee on Wednesday.
Evers has repeatedly blamed Republicans who control the Legislature for blocking his efforts to get the virus under control. Republicans are part of a lawsuit seeking to overturn the state's mask mandate and the Tavern League of Wisconsin is suing to overturn Evers' order limiting capacity in bars and restaurants.
A third lawsuit was filed Friday asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to rule that Evers overstepped his authority in issuing subsequent public health emergency orders after the first one expired in May. Jeré Fabick, a policy adviser at the conservative Heartland Institute who lives in Waukesha County, asked the Supreme Court to take the case directly, skipping lower courts.
State law limits health emergencies to 60 days, but the Legislature can grant an extension. Evers has issued new health orders, arguing that he can do that because the threat caused by the pandemic has changed.
All three lawsuits argue that the circumstances that led to the first health emergency — the pandemic — have not changed and therefore Evers’ actions are illegal.
Evers has faulted Republicans for fighting him in court and not coming forward with a plan of their own.
Evers is now putting money behind his criticism, with his first television ad released during the pandemic. It's part of a six-figure buy running in the Green Bay, La Crosse/Eau Claire and Milwaukee media markets, his campaign said. Evers is not on the ballot on Nov. 3, but two Republican legislative leaders shown in the ad are. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is running for reelection and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald is running for Congress in an open seat. Wisconsin is also a battleground in the presidential race.
Fitzgerald responded by accusing Evers of exploiting the pandemic for political gain. He said the Legislature was ready to react “if and when” Congress passes another coronavirus relief bill.
“Attempting to lay the responsibility for pandemic response at the feet of the legislature simply demonstrates Tony Evers’ poor leadership of an administration more focused on politics than on coming together for meaningful reform,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “He has not approached the legislature with any proposal that he wants to see acted on, instead relying on unilateral administrative actions that he knows violate state law, and have failed to make a meaningful difference in combating the public health crisis.”
The ad also shows a clip of President Donald Trump removing his face mask, while a narrator says, “Republicans are playing politics with our pandemic response.” Trump was scheduled to hold a rally Saturday in Janesville.
Attendees will be required to park more than 2 miles away and take shuttle buses to the rally, the sheriff's department said.
Also Friday, the Madison school district announced it would continue to be virtual only through Jan. 22, the end of the second quarter. The roughly 26,000 students in the district have not been in schools since March.
Meanwhile, Rock and Chippewa counties are among those asking people who test positive for COVID-19 assist with contact tracing efforts. Public health officials say one reason for surging cases is people lacking the knowledge of who might be sick, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.