Wisconsin Capitol during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo credit: Nazan Gillie
Late Wednesday afternoon, at the request of Republicans in the Legislature, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home plan, which was ordered by Department of Health Services (DHS) Secretary-designee Andrea Palm. Responses came flooding in from local government, elected officials, businesses and groups responding to the chaos created by the late-in-the-day ruling that took effect immediately.
Here are some of the comments from Wisconsinites (and a few others) taken from interviews, releases and social media:
Gov. Tony Evers spoke to reporters Wednesday evening via phone, clearly disturbed and upset with Republican legislative leaders and the four Supreme Court justices who tossed out his administration’s Safer at Home order:
“We were in a good place in Wisconsin because the people in Wisconsin have done a great job. They followed wise practices such as staying at home, making sure that they kept the proper distance when they weren’t home, doing all the right things. … So today, Republican legislators convinced four members of the Supreme Court to throw the state into chaos.
“Speaker Vos, and the Republican legislators who brought this case, they have thrown the state in the chaos. They have provided no plan. There’s no question, among anybody that people are going to get sick. We presently lead the Midwest in having the fewest cases per capita … Republicans own that chaos. They set us back in our health and in our economy. … I’m very disappointed in the decision. Apparently for the four that made this decision facts don’t matter, the law doesn’t matter, precedent doesn’t matter.”
Attorney General Josh Kaul responded to the decision praising the progress Wisconsin has made against COVID-19. “At the Legislature’s urging, however, the plan that’s been working has largely been struck down.” He accused the Legislature of refusing to respond to his call to action, resulting in it providing “no plan to address the coronavirus.”
“They can’t keep waiting to do so. In the middle of the fight against this virus, we need reasonable rules in place that protect Wisconsinites’ health,” Kaul continued. “In the meantime I ask all Wisconsinites to continue helping to fight the coronavirus by socially distancing and following other recommendations from public health experts.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos put out a joint statement at 8:15 pm, hours after the ruling and after Evers had addressed the media. “When we met with Gov. Evers a week ago, we asked him to begin negotiating with us on a plan for reopening. He politely declined and said we should wait for the court decision. Now that the decision has been rendered, we are confident Wisconsin citizens are up to the task of fighting the virus as we enter a new phase. … This ruling allows people to once again gather with their loved ones or visit their places of worship without the fear of violating a state order. Republicans believe business owners can safely reopen using the guidelines provided by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. We urge our fellow small business owners to utilize the suggestions as a safe and effective way to open up our state. Wisconsin now joins multiple states that don’t have extensive ‘stay at home orders’ but can continue to follow good practices of social distancing, hand washing, hand sanitizer usage and telecommuting. This order does not promote people to act in a way that they believe endangers their health.”
Former Gov. Scott Walker tweeted the news writing, “The rule of law must be upheld — even in emergencies.” When Donald Trump Jr. responded to him with “The Wisconsin Supreme Court just NUKED the lockdowns.” Walker replied by patting himself on the back: “Also, a good reminder of how important judicial picks are — I appointed 2 of the 4 justices on the 4 to 3 majority.”
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin commented on Twitter: “The people of Wisconsin have done their part to advance our common good during this pandemic and now the WI Supreme Court has done the bidding of @SenFitzgerald & @repvos once again to put politics ahead of public health. It’s shameful they can’t put your health and safety first.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan tied the decision to a previous Supreme Court decision. “This is the same conservative Court that forced Wisconsinites to vote in-person in April. Over 65 of them now have COVID-19. This will threaten the life of all Wisconsinites. The GOP legislature & Court have made one thing clear: they think human life isn’t worth protecting.” He added, via his personal account: “The Supreme Court in Wisconsin just threw out @GovEvers Safer at Home order. I say move the Supreme Court to Racine County for the next month and don’t allow working from home.”
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes via Twitter: “People across the state have made significant sacrifices in order for us to get this far, and we can’t let today’s ruling undo that progress. Staying safer at home is the only way we will save lives, so we need everyone to keep going, no matter what the Supreme Court says.”
Eric Holder, former United States Attorney General, said in a Tweet the decision was a partisan one. “In invalidating stay at home order Wisconsin Supreme Court callously puts lives at risk,” Holder said. “Republican legislature and justices now own impact of their actions. This is ideology/partisanship over law/good sense. A lot of ‘regular folks’ will suffer. Shameful.”
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said right after the ruling that the city’s stay-at-home order remains in place, and that the court’s decision had no effect on its public health order. “That order remains in effect, including all provisions on public gatherings, restaurants, and bar operations.” In an interview with TMJ4, he said, “Of course my initial reaction is that unfortunately right now our Supreme Court acts more like a jukebox for the Republican leadership in the Legislature. They put in a coin and the Wisconsin Supreme Court plays the song they want them to play.”
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz: “The decision is a total disaster, but yet not surprising. Legislative Republicans and their marionette Court demonstrated again that they will strike down decades old law when a governor they don’t like uses the powers under that law. Even if it risks the lives of the Wisconsin residents they serve. … Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, the Evers Administration has operated with the consultation of the top health experts in the state, always with an eye on slowing the spread of the virus and protecting the most vulnerable among us. Today’s decision is reckless and risks undoing that progress. … While the Wisconsin Supreme Court did not act in the best interest of the state today, it does not mean we should stop acting in the best interest of each other.”
Dietram Scheufele, a UW Madison professor with an expertise in science communication, says science and health advice can only go so far when officials make decisions, and the court ruling shows just where that line is. “I think this highlights the political nature of stay-at-home orders,” he says. “Scientists and public health officials can tell us what the health-related risk and benefits are of particular measures. But political questions, by definition, involve a lot more than just science, including fiscal, regulatory, and value-based considerations, and the supreme court decision just highlighted that. In the long run, I think this will only deepen the tribal thinking that’s already emerged around even basic facts.”
Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin (AFP-WI) Director Eric Bottcalled the decision a “win for the protection of the separation of powers.” The group, which wrote an amicus brief in the case supporting Republican leaders, continued, “By respecting core separation of powers principles and honoring the legislature and public’s role in addressing the crisis, government is more likely to develop the goodwill necessary for successful outcomes.”
Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewleysaid the court decision caused unhelpful uncertainty when what’s needed is “clear and consistent leadership.” She added, “The executive branch is the appropriate place for authority during a pandemic, when decisions about health and the economic well-being of the state are paramount. At a time when leadership is needed most, Wisconsin families are left with political games. Please don’t be coaxed into a false sense of security by the Supreme Court’s misguided action.”
Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said in a long thread of tweets that the ruling was “dangerous madness” and the court’s “hypocrisy here is staggering,” as he pointed out arguments for the case were heard remotely. “The GOP’s legislating-from-the-bench hand grenade leaves the state’s emergency response in tatters,” Wikler said. “Individual counties (go Dane!) are issuing their own orders to continue the state’s. But COVID crosses county lines.”
Andrew Hitt (GOP) Tweeted: “The rule of law prevails: “We do not conclude that Palm was without any power to act in the face of this pandemic. However, Palm must follow the law that is applicable to state-wide emergencies”
Racine Mayor Cory Masonurged residents to continue to take steps protecting themselves and the community and slammed the Supreme Court: “This decision seems rooted more in partisan politics than findings of law. It certainly ignores science and what thousands of medical professionals have been saying … This reckless decision will almost certainly mean that the pandemic lasts longer and the health consequences will be even more severe, particularly in places like Racine which is seeing a spike in cases and savage disparities among communities of color.”
Sen. Jennifer Shilling tweeted, “It was completely reckless of Republican politicians to overturn WI’s #SaferAtHome order without any plan to replace it. A patchwork of regulations means more confusion, more economic uncertainty and more strain on our front line health care providers.”
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke was among the first Republican leaders to respond, adding a statement later. “Instead of coming together to work on a plan for all of Wisconsin like we repeatedly called for, tonight’s ruling only shows that Governor Evers and his administration overreached under the law and is being told to play by the rules. As legislative Republicans have said all along, all Wisconsin businesses are essential, as are the families they support in our communities. As we now move to join the many other states who don’t have shelter in place orders in effect, I would encourage those planning to open the doors for the first time to be proactive and smart about finding ways to safely open their businesses.”
Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Stephanie Bloomingdale said in a statement that the lawsuit “was all about taking away authority from our duly elected Governor Evers. What a shame, again, for our great state to have politicians playing partisan games at the expense of regular people. The reopening of Wisconsin’s economy must be grounded and centered on protecting worker health and safety. If workers aren’t safe, the public isn’t safe…”
UW-Madison journalism professor Mike Wagner tweeted in response to Dane County keeping a stay-at-home order in place: “This is responsible. I hope Wisconsin’s other countries follow their lead. I fear, however, that the toxic and polarized politics in our state will lead to partisan differences in infection, illness and death from here forward.”
Madison Elmer, an organizer of the Reopen Wisconsin protest held April 24, says she doesn’t think the Evers administration’s order was American. “I feel like something like that in America should be unenforceable,” she said. “This ruling will give some Wisconsin establishments the confidence they need to reopen without fear of reprimand or recourse. I feel like the people who own these establishments will open at their own pace … which is the beauty of America.”
Tavern League of Wisconsin: “The result of this decision is business can open immediately. Please follow the WEDC guidelines you can find on the TLW website. We will get you a more detailed summary of the decision, however, according to the ruling you can OPEN IMMEDIATELY!” (Representatives of the league did not respond to email, Twitter, or telephone inquiries to clarify whether and how they expected members to follow the WEDC guidelines, which include extensive recommendations for maintaining physical distancing and call for employees to wear masks on the job.)
State Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit): “The court failed to lay out a workable path forward to ensure continuity and clarity for Wisconsin businesses and residents. By issuing its decision after 5 pm and not providing a clear stay of the ruling, there is little opportunity for Gov. Evers to put forward administrative rules to continue to manage this public health crisis before bars open tonight or before other businesses open in the morning….”
Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison-Dane County, issued a countywide version of the Safer at Home order that followed the state order with some revisions. “We have seen that Safer at Home is working Dane County and slowing the spread of COVID-19,” Heinrich said at a news conference Wednesday evening. “Continuing public health orders at a local level will ensure that we don’t go backward on the progress that we have made. …Please continue to stay home unless absolutely necessary. Do not host groups, gatherings and play dates.”
At the same news conference, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway stated: “The Wisconsin Supreme Court is the only court in the nation to strike down a public health order that has been a major success in preventing death and illness in Wisconsin.”
Marathon County officials said in a news release they understand residents have questions and people should continue to take precautions. “As we wait for additional action from the state of Wisconsin, Marathon County urges residents to continue to practice social distancing and personal hygiene, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control,” the release states. “Similarly, we encourage local businesses to protect customers and staff by adopting appropriate safety guidelines…”
As Dane and Milwaukee Counties issued their own orders and Marathon County urged caution as its businesses reopened, Jefferson County Administrator Ben Wehmeier only said he will provide updates later. “We are monitoring the situation and reviewing the language of the Supreme Court Ruling,” Wehmeier said in an email. “I will update as this moves forward.”
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) President & CEO Kurt Bauer said the Court struck down an order he said was unlawful, invalid and unenforceable, adding, “Today’s decision is a win for the state’s economy, countless businesses and hundreds of thousands of unemployed Wisconsinites who are ready to get back to work. WMC looks forward to working collaboratively with the legislature and Gov. Evers to ensure the state begins its economic recovery in a safe and sustainable way so we can protect both lives and livelihoods.”
Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, whose members first appealed to Evers to declare the original Safer at Home order that took effect March 25, stayed out of the court battle, but also urged Evers to begin opening up the state before the extended order’s expiration. “By taking the COVID-19 threat seriously from the outset, our state and region are now well-positioned to begin the process of curing our economic ills,” MMAC stated Wednesday evening on Twitter. “But this is no time to let our guard down. The way forward from here is a responsible return — not to normal, but to a “new normal” that balances increased economic activity with safety measures to protect employees and customers.”
ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ott released a statement that included: “Emergency orders can be necessary during crises like a pandemic, as long as they are grounded in science and consistent with the need to protect the health, safety, and civil liberties of us all. Specifically, Wisconsin’s safer-at-home order has been instrumental in allowing Wisconsinites to stay home from work and protect themselves from infection.”
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Melanie Conklin was the Wisconsin Examiner's founding Deputy Editor, serving from its launch July 1, 2019, until Feb. 1, 2022. She 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 before returning to journalism at the 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.
Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.
Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.
Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.