As the state’s Democrats and Republicans plan for their upcoming inaugural events and legislative session, the differences between their response to COVID-19 precautions remains stark.
On Monday, incoming Democratic Assembly members and incumbents participated in a virtual swearing in ceremony on Zoom with Gov. Tony Evers. Republicans, however, are planning for the first meeting of the Legislature to be an in-person event for all legislators that includes a swearing in, with masks suggested but not mandated. Assembly Democrats are considering boycotting that first meeting as the virtual swearing in meets legal standards according to Democratic leaders.
In an memo emailed to all legislators on the Assembly’s first meeting, Assembly Speaker Pro-Tem Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva) indicated that legislators would be divided up into two groups and social distancing would take place during the event between the groups. Incoming freshmen can bring guests who will sit in the galleries. After the swearing-in, election of officers and initial rule votes will take place and “any roll call votes will be done verbally.”
But the potential for not having a mask requirement for mandatory meetings was unwelcome news to many Democrats who had already expressed concern that in-person meeting attendance would be mandatory and anyone not in the room in person would be recorded as absent, which the Wisconsin Examiner reported was announced by Rep. John Macco (R-De Pere) as policy for future legislative meetings as he chaired the Assembly Ways and Means Committee in early December.
Also on Monday, Speaker Robin Vos announced that Assembly sessions would be held in person when the body convenes in January. Virtual participation would not be an option. He did not say whether masks would be required and has not responded to an Examiner request for comment.
“People all across Wisconsin safely go to work every day and members of the Assembly are capable of doing so as well,” said Vos in a statement to Up North News. “Congress met this week to pass legislation and in January we will meet safely, like other legislatures across the country have done during the pandemic.”
However, a summary of state actions during the pandemic, tracked by the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), show a wide range of responses including meeting virtually, hybrid models, adding plexiglass, health checks before entrance, spacing desks and other measures for distancing for in-person meetings. (Vos is the 2020 president of NCSL.)
In South Dakota, for example, renovations are being made to wire the chambers to make remote access easier. Still others are holding meetings outdoors or in convention centers.
Wisconsin Assembly desks are attached together in long lines with no spacing between them.
The Wisconsin Legislature, however, has not met since April during the pandemic, and Republicans have refused to take up proposed COVID-19 relief measures and racial justice bills pushed by Democrats, including Evers. WisPolitics.com found that Wisconsin had the least active legislative body in the nation during the pandemic.
The governor and Democratic legislative leadership have requested the Legislature meet numerous times since April and berated legislative Republicans, saying they are not doing their job. At publication time, Vos had not responded to questions on his in-person meeting requirements or when he would release the official Assembly rules for the session.
For the April 15 session, held to pass an initial COVID-19 relief bill, Vos permitted virtual participation by lawmakers, which most Democrats opted to do. In October, there were rumors of coronavirus spreading among Republican staff and legislators, but according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, GOP sources refused to confirm any cases other than Vos’ chief of staff, who attended a staff retirement party.
However, posts from in-person campaign events, committee meetings including a high-profile public hearing on the election, Christmas tree decorating and a Capitol sing-along show Republican legislators without masks.
Evers has announced he will deliver his State of the State address on Jan. 12 and his budget address on Feb. 7 virtually and has requested the Legislature, which traditionally attends both events, do so virtually as well.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, during the virtual Democratic swearing-in ceremony, praised his fellow Democrats for adhering to public health measures during the pandemic.
“This past year people throughout Wisconsin have made both major and minor adjustments to their daily routines so that they can protect themselves, their loved ones and their wider communities during the pandemic,” began Hintz. “I’m really proud to have so many Assembly Democrats taking their oath of office in a way that keeps them safe and keeps their communities safe. As elected leaders we are showing from the get-go that we can conduct our important work in a way that protects public health.”
“I’m absolutely jazzed to be here today,” said Evers, who then asked new members to raise their right hand and swear that they will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Wisconsin and will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties of the office. Incumbents then took the oath of office collectively.
Other Wisconsin politicians that have been public about a positive test earlier in the year include state Reps. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) and Scott Allen (R-Waukesha) and U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wis.).
As of Tuesday, Wisconsin had recorded 4,783 deaths from COVID-19.