Starting Tuesday: Stay at home means stay at home

Republicans criticize Gov. Tony Evers' order, Evers responds that he's following science

Gov. Tony Evers answers questions during a COVID-19 briefing via phone on 03/23/20. (Photo: screenshot from YouTube of call.)
Gov. Tony Evers answers questions during a COVID-19 briefing via phone on 03/23/20. (Photo: screenshot from YouTube of call.)

Starting Tuesday there will be a “stay at home” order for the state of Wisconsin, which is a phrase Gov. Tony Evers wants used because it is specific and direct in its terminology leaving little question about what people need to do to curb the spread of COVID-19. 

The practice of only going out for vital interactions is about the same as in other states that have issued “shelter in place” orders. 

“We want people to stay at home,” said Evers, deliberately repeating himself often and with emphasis on that order, sounding much like the classroom teacher he used to be. “Shelter in place could mean I’m walking down the street and I’m taking shelter right here. Stay at home means stay at home.” 

Evers first announced the order in a Twitter thread on Monday morning and followed up with a media briefing Monday afternoon that included Wisconsin Department of Health Services secretary-designee Andrea Palm, state Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ryan Westergaard and Wisconsin’s Adjutant General Paul Knapp who commands the Wisconsin National Guard.

Gov. Tony Evers and Dept. of Health Services Sect.-designee Andrea Palm socially distance while delivering a COVID-19 briefing via phone on 03/23/20. (Photo: screenshot from YouTube of call.)
Gov. Tony Evers and Dept. of Health Services Sect.-designee Andrea Palm socially distance while delivering a COVID-19 briefing via phone on 03/23/20. (Photo: screenshot from YouTube of call.)

Details of the order’s scope were still in flux as of mid-afternoon Monday, but Evers said those would be coming in time for the public to know what they will need to do Tuesday for work. The list of exempted reasons for leaving home will include buying groceries and visiting medical offices or pharmacies. Among exempted workers will be people  in the supply chain that those businesses need.

A stay at home order can be enforced by law enforcement.

In reply to a reporter’s questions, Evers said details would be released soon enough that no one would be going into work Tuesday only to be sent home from the job mid-shift. 

The governor also clarified that “stay at home” will continue to allow restaurant and bar food pick-up and delivery, as well as the broadcast of  religious services, within the current constraints already in place.

At the time of the media briefing Monday afternoon, the state Department of Health Services had reported 416 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 7,050 negative tests and five deaths in Wisconsin.  Also on Monday, state Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) confirmed that he had tested positive for COVID-19, and while he was still struggling with symptoms, he was recuperating and in good spirits. 

Rep. David Bowen official state photo
Rep. David Bowen

Bowen applauded Evers’ order: “Even if you are young and typically healthy, it’s even more important that you heed the call to stay home, take care of your family, and not spread the virus to others who are vulnerable.”

On its web page DHS offers practical advice for keeping safe and what to do if you believe you are sick or at high risk. The site now has four sections of community resources for business, health-care professionals, schools/childcare and community and faith-based groups. 

GOP push back

Republicans expressed frustration about being surprised by the governor’s order, and accused Evers of announcing it in a manner that contributed to confusion. A joint statement from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), distributed shortly after the DHS-Evers media briefing concluded, stated:

The governor’s announcement has created mass amounts of confusion. For days, Governor Evers took a measured approach and reassured business owners that a shelter-in-place order may not be necessary. Legislative leaders even complimented him for it. The governor’s sudden change of course and lack of specific guidance have increased the level of uncertainty and anxiety in our state.”

Fitzgerald and Vos asked for answers to three questions:  

  • What are the metrics that this decision is based on? 
  • What is considered an essential and non-essential business? How is that being determined?
  • What changes need to happen for the order to be lifted? 

The Republican legislative leaders began their critique before the briefing on social media, and when asked about that, Evers said he has been in frequent contact with them. He acknowledged his position on the need for a stay at home order changed after conversations he had over the weekend.

Evers said prior to that he had thought — and hoped — such an order would not be necessary, but he was following the advice of health experts. They told him over the last few days that Wisconsin was not making adequate progress in preventing the COVID-19 spread. 

Evers also mentioned —  several times — that business leaders he was in recent contact with urged him to move forward with ordering people to stay home.

“Science is important to me and I followed the science,” said Evers.

Before the afternoon briefing, Steve Baas, spokesman for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, appeared to edge toward support, but made it clear this was causing significant problems for businesses:

“We’re waiting to see the details. We certainly understand the value of urgent, significant, large-scale action to ‘flatten the curve’ and blunt the initial wave of infection,” he said. “We are aware this order will cause great disruption for the business community and for our region’s employees. We understand the hope that acting decisively in the short term will help speed control of this epidemic and economic recovery in the long term.”

A number of Wisconsin health-and-science-related businesses have also joined in the statewide fight against COVID-19, including work on testing and data, according to Evers. The three he mentioned were Epic Systems, Promega Corporation and Exact Sciences.

Wisconsin’s Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Paul E. Knapp, who commands the Wisconsin National Guard and is responsible for state Emergency Management announced another new program with businesses he hopes to have launched in the next 48 hours: a personal protective equipment (PPE) buy-back program. 

Major General Paul E Knapp
Major General Paul Knapp, Wisconsin’s Adjutant General Paul Knapp who commands the Wisconsin National Guard and state Emergency Management.

He will be looking for donations — or purchases, possibly from closed businesses — of PPE that includes N95 masks, isolation gloves, respirators, thermometers, face shields, etc. These are needed not only for medical workers, but also for first responders. Wisconsin will be receiving PPE items from the federal stockpile in the coming days, according to Palm, but Evers added that the need exceeds what the state will receive.

Knapp indicated the Wisconsin PPE buy-back program might be expanded in future weeks for such vital items as baby formula.

Vote by mail, darn it!

The governor began his call — after thanking people who are “pitching in to help each other” in the crisis and expressing condolences to survivors of the five deceased Wisconsin residents in the pandemic — by addressing democracy. 

Evers wants every person in the state who is eligible to vote to request an absentee ballot. (Read an Examiner summary of how to vote early and by mail here.)

In response to a question of whether poll sites would be considered an essential service on April 7, or if he was considering a mail-only election, Evers demurred, simply saying people should request a ballot by mail.

He also repeated his increasingly controversial conviction that the election must not be delayed because of the damage it would do to all the local races up and down the ballot and the vital Wisconsin Supreme Court race.

Concluded Evers, “We can do this — it’s pretty simple — stay at home.”

Senior reporter Erik Gunn contributed to this story.

Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.