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Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers extends statewide mask mandate through November

Governor Tony Evers gives his first State of the State address in Madison, Wisconsin, at the State Capitol building on Jan. 22, 2019. (Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism/Flickr)

With positive COVID-19 cases surging in college communities across the state, Gov. Tony Evers has extended the statewide mask mandate through late November.

Evers announced on Tuesday the new mask mandate — along with the governor’s third public health emergency — in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19. Positive cases had started to drop after Evers’ first mask mandate took effect in July, but have been rising, primarily among 18- to 24-year-olds, since students returned to campus.

“We continue to learn more about this virus, but what we do know is that we are facing a new and dangerous phase of the COVID-19 pandemic here in Wisconsin,” Evers said in a statement. “We are seeing an alarming increase in cases across our state, especially on campus. We need folks to start taking this seriously, and young people especially — please stay home as much as you are able, skip heading to the bars, and wear a mask whenever you go out.”

The order goes into effect immediately and remains in place for 60 days or until a superseding order is passed.

Under the order, everyone age 5 and older must wear a face covering when indoors or in any enclosed space open to the public including outdoor bars and restaurants, public transit and outdoor park structures. The order does not apply to people in their private residences. Face coverings are strongly recommended in all other settings where people may come in contact with others, including outdoors when maintaining physical distance is not possible. A violation of the order would not bring any criminal penalties but could result in a $200 fine.

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The state order supersedes any less-restrictive local mask order but allows local entities to enforce more restrictive rules.

Public Health Madison and Dane County spokeswoman Sarah Mattes said the state order doesn’t change anything in Dane County, where the existing local order is more restrictive.

GOP pushback

State Republicans, who criticized Evers’ previous public health emergency and mask mandate, also pushed back against the latest order.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, described Evers’ latest order as “moot, illegal, invalid, and almost assuredly headed for litigation.”

“Governor Evers’ disregard for the state constitution and the role of the three branches of government is mind-boggling,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “The Governor’s order is not valid and is not worth the paper it’s printed on.”

Fitzgerald came short of calling on the Legislature to convene to strike down the order on Tuesday, as he did less than 24 hours after Evers’ first mask mandate. Senate Republicans claimed this summer they had enough votes to overrule the governor’s order, but never formally convened on the matter. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in July he anticipated a legal challenge from citizen groups, but did not call for legislative action.

Vos did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Evers’ second public health emergency already faces a legal challenge from the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), which alleges the governor cannot unilaterally extend a public health emergency or declare multiple emergencies in response to the same crisis. The group did not seek an immediate injunction to stop enforcement of the governor’s mask mandate.

“Governor Evers and his team believe the presence of COVID-19 supersedes the rule of law and our state constitution,” Rick Esenberg, WILL president and general counsel, said in a statement. “They are wrong. Letting this gross abuse of power stand is not an option.”

Officials with WILL said attorney’s are reviewing the current order and need to discuss the matter with clients before any further decisions are made on the lawsuit.

However, Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, said a court challenge could take weeks or months to reach a final solution and called on legislative leaders to act now.

“Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has enabled the continuing illegal conduct of Governor Evers in issuing repeated emergency declarations and a failed statewide mask mandate,” Nass said in a statement. “The Legislature has the constitutional and statutory authority to call an extraordinary session and put an end to the improper actions of the Governor.”

The state Legislature has met only once since the pandemic began to take up COVID-19-related legislation back in April.

Rising cases

As of Monday, more than 102,000 Wisconsinites had tested positive for COVID-19 and 1,244 people had died as a result of the respiratory disease, according to the state Department of Health Services. The seven-day average of newly reported cases reached 1,792 on Monday.

In a statement on Tuesday, Evers’ administration noted the state is now experiencing “experiencing unprecedented, near-exponential growth of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The current surge among young people is concerning, but it is important to remember that this increase in cases is not confined to college campuses,” DHS Secretary Andrea Palm said in a statement. “Students come to these campuses from across the state, and we worry about the effect their return from an area with a high infection rate could have on their home communities. That is why it is imperative we take action to curb transmission now – to protect residents of Wisconsin in every corner of the state.”

The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents in July also began requiring students and faculty to wear face coverings in classrooms and other indoor public spaces on campuses.

Earlier this month, UW-Madison moved all classes online for at least two weeks and quarantined two of its largest dorms after the city-county health department identified at least 46 separate outbreaks tied to UW-Madison.

What’s more, university leaders said they are “cautiously optimistic” the latest data that shows the seven-day average positivity rate of students tested on-campus is 5.7%, down from a high of 10.4% on Sept. 13. The number of new cases has declined each of the past five days, according to UW-Madison’s data dashboard.

UW System President Tommy Thompson said in a statement on Tuesday that the university is “effectively managing situations as they arise.”

“We have been working to create a culture of responsibility among our students, including a mandate to wear masks, while pursuing more aggressive actions as necessary,” Thompson said in a statement. “Higher education is essential, and we are gratified to see students responding and cases decreasing on several campuses.”

Last week, Evers hinted at the possibility of extending the statewide mask mandate, which he called an “important piece of the puzzle” to mitigate the spread of the disease.

The Evers administration’s stay-at-home order, issued by Palm in March, was struck down on procedural grounds, with the state Supreme Court saying the Legislature needed to have a say in any long-term COVID-19 regulations.

After saying multiple times that the court’s order prevented him from implementing a mask order, Evers in July declared a new public health emergency and a separate order requiring masks. Both orders are set to expire Sept. 28.

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© 2020 The Wisconsin State Journal