Republicans in more rural parts of Wisconsin joined with business owners to push for a regional reopening plan Thursday to give the economy a boost, as the Department of Workforce Development warned that the state fund that pays unemployment claims could run out of money in five months.
Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said he worried that loosening restrictions meant to curb the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus in some parts of the state could lead to regional outbreaks. But he admitted that his next move will depend on how the Wisconsin Supreme Court rules in a case brought by Republicans challenging the authority of his health secretary to issue orders closing businesses.
Evers’ current safer-at-home order that closed most nonessential businesses is set to run until May 26. Republicans want to take authority away from Evers’ health secretary to issue future orders, requiring instead that she work with the the GOP-led Legislature on passing a rule.
Evers said on WTMJ radio on Thursday that he hoped to not have to extend that order, which was originally slated to end on April 24, but the future of his powers now rests with the conservative-controlled court.
Republicans have been calling on Evers to consider a regional reopening because rural areas have had far fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19. Milwaukee has the majority of the state’s deaths and confirmed cases. Of the 362 deaths reported as of Wednesday, 204, or 56%, were in Milwaukee County. It also had about 39% of the state’s confirmed cases.
Republican lawmakers held news conferences Thursday with business leaders in Appleton, Wausau and Chippewa Falls to call for a regional reopening plan. Republicans have not put forward their own plan to counter what Evers has offered, which is statewide and relies on a drop in COVID-19 cases before there can be a widespread loosening of restrictions.
“We shouldn’t have a Republican plan or a governor’s plan, we need a Wisconsin plan that the entire state can get behind,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a statement.
Evers, speaking earlier on WTMJ, wouldn’t rule out the possibility of reopening some less affected parts of the state sooner than others, but he worried about the potential for an outbreak. He expressed concern about COVID-19 cases in rural areas being undercounted because of a lack of testing. Bringing more people to those areas, particularly those who rely on tourism over the summer months, could lead to a spike in cases, he said.
“I never say never in this situation,” Evers said of regionalization. “There may be cases where we do it. I think we can do a lot of things, reopening, that are statewide and impact all counties at the same time.”
In the latest sign of how hard-hit Wisconsin has been by the virus, the Department of Workforce Development said the state could run out of money to pay unemployment benefits to workers who lost their jobs as early as October 11. That was the worst of three scenarios laid out by the department. The other two, which assume fewer unemployment payments, project that the fund will be depleted in January or September 2021.
If the state runs out of money, it could borrow from the federal government so that the unemployed would still receive benefit checks, said department spokesman Ben Jedd. The state’s projections don’t include future employer-paid unemployment insurance tax revenue, which would prolong the viability of the state fund.
The average number of claims per week is nearly double what was seen during the Great Recession that began in December 2007, the Department of Workforce Development said.
The department has been overwhelmed with calls from people filing for unemployment and asking questions about their eligibility. Last week alone, the department said it received 4.7 million calls about unemployment benefits.
Evers said that the state was adding people and “working hard” to process claims.
“We are anything but perfect,” Evers said. While some people have complained of waiting as long as six weeks to get their first check, Evers said the state was meeting the needs of the “vast majority” of filers.
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