Wisconsin State Capitol Police car in front of Wisconsin Capitol. (Photo: WI Department of Administration)
On the eve of a planned protest in front of the state Capitol by people flouting the state’s Safer at Home order, Gov. Tony Evers said on Thursday that he won’t ask Capitol police to intervene or arrest participants — even though they would be there without a permit.
“I celebrate the First Amendment and celebrate people’s ability to exercise it. Just keep a safe distance apart,” Evers said during a Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) media briefing, in reaction to organizers’ vow to go ahead with their demonstration despite lacking a permit.
It was the first of several points during Thursday’s briefing in which Evers struck a conciliatory and flexible tone in discussing the extended state lockdown, while continuing to emphasize the Safer at Home order’s necessity for public health and safety.
And it was a sharp contrast to images of Evers that have been conjured on social media by participants in anti-Safer-at-Home circles. One meme features a Hitlerian haircut and mustache plastered over the governor’s face, along with a comment declaring the state capital “the Imperialistic Republic of Madison” and warning “we ain’t getting out from under his claws any time soon.”
Asked later in the briefing whether Capitol police would arrest people at the demonstration for violating six-foot physical distancing limits, Evers doubled down on his portrayal of the protesters as people acting in good faith
“We’re making the assumption that these are all good Wisconsinites that are establishing their right under the First Amendment to express their views, and we also believe that they will make sure that they’re physically distant from each other,” Evers said. “I don’t think you’ll see the Capitol police out there or other law officers out there measuring with a yardstick seeing if people are too close or too far away.”
While the governor said he thought “it would be a great mistake to make the decision to not comply or not use good judgment by keeping a safe distance from someone else,” and warned that failing to follow the physically distancing rules “could negatively affect someone else,” he persisted with the overall message: “Using the First Amendment to express yourself, to voice your opinion, is quite sacred,” he said. “But I don’t think that should prevent people from using common sense.”
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Evers emphasized the flexibility in the extended order several other times during the briefing, starting with the reminder that, effective this weekend — as a group of Republican links enthusiasts have demanded — golf courses will be open, while players must use social distancing, not use golf carts and pay their greens fees by phone.
He said it remained his hope that schools can be open by fall, although some districts have reportedly told families to prepare for as much as a full school year of online classes.
Evers was asked if and how he would respond to the calls and messages to his office decrying the Safer at Home extension. “Of course we respond” to such contacts, he said. “We also respond to the thousands of people that send us things saying, ‘This is something we’re real comfortable with.’”
He again expressed sympathy for people who have been hurt economically and in other ways by the state’s shutdown. But he also noted that the state has labeled more businesses and services as “essential” — and therefore eligible to be open even now — than a number of other states. And he emphasized that the extended order won’t be set in concrete if metrics allow for elements to be relaxed.
“Clearly there are people in Wisconsin that are struggling because of this disease, and we believe that the best way to move the state forward is to attack the disease, attack the virus,” Evers said. “While we’re doing that we’re also looking for every flexibility we can find to dial back things that may be restricting businesses from opening or expanding.”
While continuing to look for ways to help small business, “also we are doing whatever we can to make sure that we are in a place so that we can start to reopen different parts of our economy — and we will continue to do that through this time,” Evers said.
“It’s a significant drain on the entire country. We are not alone in that in Wisconsin,” he added. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure that people are home if possible and have this disease defeated or at least minimized as soon as possible, so that we can open up the state in a thoughtful and cautious way.”
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