Gov. Tony Evers had several messages directed at legislative Republicans during his news conference on Wednesday — and most were tied to his feeling that these elected officials are not taking the pandemic seriously enough. The governor was especially concerned about the legislators’ support for court challenges to public-health emergency orders and mask requirements.
“As many of you also know, our current public health emergency and our face coverings order are being challenged in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Republicans in the Legislature support this effort,” said Evers. “That’s why today, once again, I’m calling on Republicans to withdraw their support for this lawsuit.”
Justices heard arguments in of those lawsuits on Monday. And Wednesday the high court agreed to hear another legal challenge over a short-lived Evers order limiting indoor gatherings that was blocked by the appellate court.
Evers followed up by announcing a new public health emergency order and face-coverings order before the current orders expire Saturday — and pushed for the Legislature to support him this time.
“It’s time, folks,” Evers said, addressing legislators. “We do not get any do-overs here. Enough games. We need you to join the cause. And we need you to start today.”
Yesterday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos responded to Evers’ new COVID-19 relief bill at a news conference, announcing some ideas of his own. While they were not in bill form — or even in writing — he suggested the following ideas and framework to reporters and later in a release.
- Building a more robust testing system including more rapid tests and at-home tests
- Doubling the number of contact tracers, hiring them at the county or city level and possibly hiring public-health students and unemployed individuals
- Granting businesses — and possibly government and school units — immunity from lawsuits over COVID-19. Limiting liability was praised by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) and has been floated by conservatives and chambers of commerce across the country.
- Reforming the unemployment insurance system, although he was unclear on how.
- Developing a plan for administering a vaccine when it is ready.
- More help for small businesses. Gov. Evers has put millions toward this effort but Vos indicated he felt that money should be awarded under different criteria, again without specifics.
Asked if there were any of the ideas Vos had floated that he found promising, Evers appeared to only have heard about testing — and was not informed on any of the others.
“I’m not sure exactly what he floated yesterday,” responded Evers. “I know he talked a lot about testing. And we agree on that. We’ve already tested 4 million people in Wisconsin. We’re averaging about 40,000 tests per week. So we agree 100% on that. So if there’s some bill that he has, or some suggestions around that, we can certainly look at it. But that can’t be the only thing. Testing is not prevention.”
Vos’ most forceful criticism of Evers’ bill was that the total cost — roughly $540 million — was too high, and that it should come from the federal CARES Act funding that runs out at the end of the year.
In the seven months since the Legislature passed its only COVID-relief package and then adjourned without returning, Evers has allocated federal funds, he said, for testing, tracing, small businesses, farmers, schools and other groups struggling in the pandemic.
Vos, essentially, is looking to spend money that the governor was given discretion over and was allocated while the Legislature was absent.
Evers responded to that criticism of his bill: “It’s pretty simple. We chose state money because the federal money ends and we have expended all of the money that we did receive from the federal government on contact tracing and testing and making sure that we provide resources for farmers and small businesses across the state, and other areas that are struggling mightily economically.”
Evers says he hopes the federal government will soon take up another COVID-response bill of its own so there will be a second round of funding, something that has been derailed for months in Congress. He encouraged Wisconsinites to contact their state and federal representatives.
“So that’s why we put the state money in there, clearly. If federal money comes, we would reimburse the state for their contribution,” Evers added.
As for the two branches of government getting together, Evers said he would “love to meet” and offered, “We can always move my calendar around whenever they have the willingness to meet.” Vos, too, has said he wants to talk and has criticized Evers for not calling, complaining publicly that they haven’t spoken since May.
At times the two men sound a bit like teenagers holding their breath to see who will get in touch first after a date.
“Hopefully we’ll meet in the near future to see if there’s any willingness to find [common ground], said Evers. “I mean, a lot of these things that were proposed, frankly, were passed by the Legislature at the beginning of a pandemic, they just expire. And so we’re hopeful that since they passed, many of them once, they’ll do it again.”
On Tuesday Vos referred to the repeated measures in Evers’ bill as “rehashing old ideas” and said he wanted new things. Vos, a landlord, did not rule out extensions of any particular items, with the exception of Evers’ proposed ban on foreclosures and evictions during the pandemic.
During the press briefing, Evers and Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm painted a dire picture for Wisconsin, including:
- A record set Tuesday for COVID deaths — 92 — a number Evers intoned over and over in his introduction.
- The seven-day average of new cases, which has quadrupled to 6,563 since the last statewide health order was issued two months ago. (Then it was 1,575.)
- 7,989 new cases Wednesday, bringing total COVID-19 cases to 331,837 in Wisconsin.
- According to metrics, Wisconsin could see 5,000 deaths before the end of this calendar year.
Palm’s descriptions of healthcare workers and hospitals across the state were also bleak. Many hospitals are deferring other procedures to focus on fighting the coronavirus. She said one-third of state hospitals have a critical staffing shortage and within a week, the hospitals expect that to hit 41%. In every region of the state, hospitals have activated their surge plans but some beds are going unused only because there is not enough staff.
“A strained hospital system puts everyone at risk whether or not you have COVID-19,” said Palm.
One children’s hospital is accepting adults, said Palm (the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee) and nine hospitals have Intensive Care Units (ICU) at 100% capacity. In one region there are “zero ICU beds available.” She concluded with an understatement, “This is not how it’s supposed to be.”
Evers tried to add drops of unity and optimism to the spiking bad COVID news:
“We’ve got a long road ahead of us in Wisconsin, but we know there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve heard promising reports of vaccines on the horizon in the new year. And we need to buckle down and get through this together until now.”
Here’s another drop of optimism — there was one remark repeated by not only Evers and Palm — Vos echoed it as well.
Said Palm: “Please stay home. Do not gather for holiday celebrations. It is not worth the risk. When you have to go out for essentials, wear masks, physically distance, remember to wash your hands. We all must do our part to stop the spread.”
Evers agreed: “As always, Wisconsin, please stay home, wear a mask if you have to go out, but otherwise stay home.”
And in Vos’ words: “So we know that the restrictions that are in place, put forward by the CDC as guidelines, are the ones that we should all follow. We know that people should wear masks, wash their hands, socially distance when able and try to keep social gatherings to a minimum.”