Battle lines harden over governor’s new health emergency, mask order

    A surgical mask and an N95 mask hang on display for sale at a pharmacy. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.
    A surgical mask and an N95 mask hang on display for sale at a pharmacy. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

    On the day before Gov. Tony Evers’ mandatory mask rule takes effect, reaction swiftly hardened Friday along predictable lines.

    More Republicans lined up to condemn the governor’s new health emergency declaration and the accompanying mask order, announced Thursday to curb the state’s renewed surge of COVID-19, which takes effect Saturday, August 1.

    Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) suggested lawmakers were poised to go back into session for the first time in more than three months to overturn the order, stating, “Republicans in the state Senate stand ready to convene the body to end the Governor’s order, which includes the mask mandate.”

    More Democrats spoke out in favor of the order — and castigated Republicans for their opposition.

    “As of July 31st, 934 people have lost their lives in Wisconsin and 96% of our state’s population lives in a place with a high level of COVID-19. Saying no is an easy thing to do,” stated Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point). “But not having a plan to keep Wisconsinites safe during a pandemic is reckless.”

    Medical groups, meanwhile, endorsed the governor’s action.

    “Emergency Physicians have been on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic and recognize the importance of wearing face coverings to help stop the spread of COVID-19,” the Wisconsin chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians said in a statement late Thursday. “We are thankful for the governor’s leadership and hope all Wisconsin residents work to comply with this order.”

    The organization’s prepared comment expressed hope that the governor’s action would mark “a turning point in this public health emergency and will get Wisconsin back on the right track of stopping the spread of COVID-19 and moving Wisconsin forward towards recovery.”

    The Wisconsin Primary Health Care Association (WPHCA) called Evers’ emergency declaration and mask mandate “a significant marker that Wisconsin is headed in the wrong direction with regards to community spread” of the virus.

    “We’ve seen the effectiveness of widespread mask use in other countries and need to employ those same tactics here,” stated Stephanie Harrison, CEO of the association, while also observing that there were shortages in some places of protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitizer. “Along with mandates, we need to ensure that everyone has access to the masks that will make this order effective.”

    A scattering of county officials, including sheriffs in Dodge and Washburn counties, publicly disavowed any intention of enforcing the order. But even Evers’ lawyer, Ryan Nilsestuen, said in the governor’s media briefing on Thursday that the spirit of the order was to encourage local authorities to “try to educate first before going down the enforcement route.”

    While a few Republican opponents condemned masks themselves, glossing over widespread backing from public health experts for their effectiveness in reducing the spread of the virus, many focused on their contention that the governor lacked the authority for his action.

    A resolution to overturn a governor’s executive order must pass both houses to succeed. On Friday, however, Fitzgerald’s Assembly counterpart, Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) refrained from further comment beyond his Thursday statement — which was silent on going back into session, but also seemed to suggest he would leave litigation to outside organizations.

    If Vos and Fitzgerald do agree to an extraordinary session in order to overturn Evers’ action, they will be taking a step that they chose not to take in the spring. Instead of convening and using the mechanism to overturn Evers’ extension of the state’s Safer at Home order, they sued in the state Supreme Court, winning a 4-3 ruling that threw it out.

    So far,  however, Vos has suggested he would leave lawsuits to “citizen groups.”

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with 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. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.