What government could do still to combat COVID-19’s effects

Governor, Democratic lawmakers, outside experts dispute GOP claims that state is powerless against virus

Wisconsin Capitol building in fall with autumn leaves in bright orange all around it
"capitol of fall" by katie wheeler via Flickr "Madison, WI State Capitol building framed by autumn leaves." 2014 CC BY-NC 2.0

It’s been more than six months since the Legislature last met, and the total number of Wisconsin residents infected with the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 is now 51 times what it was then.

As of April 16 — the day after Gov. Tony Evers signed the Legislature’s only bill to address the COVID-19 pandemic — 197 Wisconsin residents were confirmed to have died because of COVID-19. By Sunday, Oct. 25, the death toll stood at 1,778. In all, 198,166 people in the state have tested positive for the virus, compared with 3,875 people on April 16.

Last week two Republican state legislators said they saw nothing else that state lawmakers could do to help curb the spread of the virus in the state.

Gov. Tony Evers and Democrats in the Legislature dispute that. In addition, though, a variety of researchers, analysts and advocates have identified a number of possible issues that lawmakers could take up to address the pandemic and its impact.

“It’s a mistake to think that the coronavirus is like a tornado — where the damage that’s inflicted is occurring on a random basis,” says Jon Peacock, executive director of Kids Forward, a research and advocacy group for Wisconsin families and children. “It’s a reflection of choices made by individuals and by states and communities.”

Rep. Joe Sanfelippo official portrait
Rep. Joe Sanfelippo

In an interview with Wisconsin Eye that was aired last week, state Rep. Joseph Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) suggested that the Legislature had no reason to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic beyond legislation in April giving Wisconsin access to $1.9 billion from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“We have to remember that this is a virus. There is nothing that government can do,” Sanfelippo told Wisconsin Eye. “You know, we can’t wave a magic wand and make it go away.”

In a separate interview, also with the nonprofit public affairs network, state Sen Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), who co-chairs the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, asserted that Evers had sufficient money and power to address the pandemic, and there was no need for lawmakers to take any other action.

Sen. Alberta Darling

“We said, ‘Let’s give him the money, let’s give him flexibility and he can do what he thinks is best,’” said Darling. “We don’t need to come in because we gave him all the flexibility that he needs.”

The day after that interview aired, however, the governor’s public health order limiting indoor gatherings at bars and restaurants to 25% of a room or building’s capacity was blocked late Friday by an appeals court after plaintiffs, including a Polk County bar and grill owner and Pro Life Wisconsin, challenged the restriction.

Governor reacts

Sanfelippo’s comment “took my breath away a little bit,” Evers told the Wisconsin Examiner at a DHS media briefing on Thursday, Oct. 22. “We can’t just say, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ That is not an appropriate response.”

Evers alluded to the lawsuit filed by GOP leaders that led the state Supreme Court to throw out Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order on May 13, and to their brief supporting a conservative law firm’s pending lawsuit that would end the state’s current health emergency and mask mandate.

Gov. Tony Evers (Screenshot from his statement on 8/24/20 regarding Jacob Blake, who was shot in the back by Kenosha police on Sunday.)
Gov. Tony Evers

“I’ve asked for specific ideas from the Republicans and their response, up until this point in time, has been a lawsuit here, lawsuit there, criticism in public and a lot of silence,” the governor said.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) haven’t yet responded to Evers’ Oct. 12 letter urging them to meet, but also challenging them to come with specific proposals, he said. That letter followed an Oct. 7 statement from Vos declaring that Republicans “would like to request a meeting with the governor as soon as possible to discuss answers to dealing with the virus.”

“I have not heard,” Evers said Thursday, “and I’m waiting for them to put some plans in place on paper so that we can talk about that.”

Asked what his priorities might be should the Legislature come into session, Evers referred generally to prevention measures that he and state Department of Health Services (DHS) officials have stressed repeatedly over the course of the pandemic. Those have included wearing masks and avoiding gatherings outside people’s immediate household groups.

Republican lawmakers have repeatedly criticized the mask order, and the Republican-controlled Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules has demanded that DHS submit through the emergency rule process the 25%-capacity order. The Evers administration contends that order isn’t subject to the rulemaking process.

“I don’t want to be a broken record. But there are basics that work, and I won’t repeat them again,” Evers said. While many businesses and individuals are complying, he added, “we need to get the rest of the state that is not complying to comply.”

Another priority would be for Republican lawmakers to disavow a letter some of them signed in May to members of Congress “saying don’t send us any money,” Evers added: “I would like them to retract that. We need federal money.” Additional funds could bolster the state’s ability to help farmers and businesses who have seen losses during the pandemic, he said.

Pandemic possibilities

In April, the Wisconsin Policy Forum reported on a variety of actions that other states had taken by then to respond to the coronavirus. In compiling the report, says Mark Sommerhauser, communications director and policy researcher, the research organization focused on what was happening but was not making specific recommendations for or against any actions.

Some of those states, in particular Minnesota, had fiscal resources that allowed them to provide financial aid to businesses and in other forms.

“There’s no question that there are some examples that other states have pursued that Wisconsin, or many other states, could look to, that would be the prerogative of the state Legislature,” Sommerhauser says.

Democratic lawmakers have offered several legislative proposals over the course of the summer that they contend would help address the pandemic’s impact.

The so-called Health Care Heroes Act includes guarantees of health care coverage, free COVID-19 testing and treatment, hazard pay and paid sick time off for healthcare workers, among other provisions.

State Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa)

“As policymakers we owe it to the public, public health, and those frontline healthcare workers to provide what they need,” stated State Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa), who coauthored the legislation with Reps. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) and Daniel Riemer (D-Milwaukee) as well as State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) when the legislation was unveiled in June.

State Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) and Reps. David Considine (D-Baraboo) and Sondy Pope (D-Mount Horeb) have proposed legislation to give public schools fiscal relief during the pandemic. Larson also has proposed allowing election clerks to start counting mail-in ballots before Election Day and taking action that would switch all schools to virtual platforms.

In July, responding to the backlog in the unemployment insurance system that was overwhelmed by applications after businesses laid-off workers because COVID-19 had drastically cut sales, Democrats also unveiled a package of proposed bills to reverse changes made over the last decade that have complicated the process of applying and blocked many more workers from qualifying.

Public health and economic disruption

Other people outside the state government who spoke with the Examiner discussed a range of measures that could be considered to address the pandemic and its impact. Those include public health strategies, but also problems ranging from healthcare access to the economic disruption the pandemic has led to.

Dr. Patrick Remington
Dr. Patrick Remington, UW School of Medicine and Public Health

Dr. Patrick Remington, an epidemiologist, says one thing lawmakers could do is convene an expert panel for recommendations on combating the spread of the virus — then follow through on the advice that results.

But his first suggestion for the Legislature is to get out of the way and stop using the courts to block public health orders.

“I think it is as much a question of what they should not be doing as what they should be doing,” says Remington, who directs the preventive medicine residency program at UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health and is professor emeritus at the Department of Population Health Sciences.

“Clearly in a public health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic, we need a strong executive branch using existing public health laws to contain and control the pandemic,” Remington says. The state’s public health law as written confers on the state health director the power to institute orders to stop the spread of communicable diseases — power that was constrained by the Supreme Court’s May 13 ruling.

“Those laws have been on the books for over a century and were first enacted for this very reason — to enable communities to intervene and control epidemics and other infectious disease outbreaks,” he says.

While orders such as the mask mandate, the 25%-capacity rule or Safer at Home in the spring do limit individual freedom, that’s “a cold, hard fact [of] some public health laws,” Remington adds. “My recommendation is that the Legislature allow the executive branch to do its job with the existing public health laws that the Wisconsin Legislature enacted more than a century ago.”

Or, says Peacock of Kids Forward, the Legislature could act to endorse and support the Evers administration’s orders.

“Wisconsin clearly needs stronger state-level action, and we have to make sure that someone, whether it’s the governor by executive order or the governor working with the Legislature, can impose appropriate regulations to slow the incredible spread of this virus,” Peacock says.

Bobby Peterson, executive director for ABC for Health, a nonprofit that advocates for low- and moderate-income people and helps them navigate the healthcare system, says a high priority should be for lawmakers to let the Evers administration accept federal funds to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

The additional federal funding would grant the state more flexibility in how it spends some of its general revenues, Peterson says.  “These resources can be directed towards healthcare, towards health disparities, towards local health departments,” he says, including helping to fund more contact tracing personnel, who have become overwhelmed during the recent surge in the pandemic.

When he ran for governor in 2018, Evers advocated for Medicaid expansion, which former Gov. Scott Walker had rejected. But the Republican majority in the Legislature blocked the incoming governor from following through on that promise in the post-election lame-duck session and subsequently stripped it from his 2019-2020 budget.

Expanding Medicaid would cover 95,000 more adults in Wisconsin and save the state almost $300 million a year, according to Peacock.

Advocates also see in the pandemic a chance to enact policies that would especially help those whom it has hit the hardest — the poor.

“We’re seeing a growing divide, nationally and in Wisconsin, between low-income people and those who are better off, and we need to start to combat that widening gap,” says Peacock, whose organization has long advocated for a number of policy changes to that end.

Those include repealing a state law that prevents local governments from setting their own, higher minimum wages, and reversing cuts made during the Walker administration to the state homestead tax credit and the state earned income tax credit (EITC).

In addition to enacting new laws addressing the problems caused by COVID-19, Peacock and others say the Legislature could play another role: providing a unified voice for even voluntary measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing.

“All the data on the incidence of cases shows that it’s impacted by public policy choices,” Peacock says. “Equally important is, it’s influenced by messaging by political leaders.”

In states where the Legislature and the governor have political consensus about imposing strict measures — including states with Republican governors — there appears to be “a higher degree of adherence to the guidelines,” he says.

By contrast, Peacock adds, “In Wisconsin, where it’s so polarized, you don’t have as much adherence to the common-sense restrictions that the experts are urging.”