Health care workers call out lawmakers who want to throw out mask order

By: - August 6, 2020 9:05 pm

Madison nurse Kate Walton at an Aug. 6 news conference in support of Gov. Tony Evers’ mask order, (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

Frustrated at threats from Republican lawmakers to overturn Wisconsin’s statewide mask mandate aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19, a group of health care workers and supporters told reporters on the steps of the state Capitol on Thursday that the Legislature should set other priorities.

The Thursday press conference was organized by nurses and the Services Employees International Union’s SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin division. It was in response to statements this week by Republican legislative leaders and lawmakers calling for an extraordinary session to overturn both the new Health Emergency order signed by Gov. Tony Evers as well as the mandatory mask requirement the governor instituted effective Saturday, Aug. 1.

“For months we’ve been calling and emailing our elected leaders to tell them what we need and to ask them to vote on the Healthcare Heroes Act,” said Tami Burns, a Madison nurse. That proposal, unveiled in June by Democrats in the Legislature, would require paid sick leave and hazard pay for health care workers and coverage for their health care if they contract COVID-19. It would also authorize the state to take the federal subsidy to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

“It is outrageous that Republican leaders have refused to bring the Legislature into session to pass the Healthcare Heroes Act, or to protect the economic wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites still out of work, but are now calling for a special session and threatening lawsuits against the mask mandate — which we know works to stop the spread of COVID — to advance their partisan agenda,” said Kate Walton, an emergency room nurse.

“On top of working a full shift, and overtime for a lot of us in a busy hospital, we’re then coming down here to ask our representatives to do their jobs — to do the bare minimum of what we expect from them,” Walton added. “It’s infuriating, it’s frustrating and it shouldn’t have to happen.”

Michele Ritt, a teacher, said her colleagues and their union, Madison Teachers Inc., stood in support of health care workers and the mask requirement. Ritt — who has volunteered in making cloth masks for health care workers and others to wear — said that when the Madison School District decided it will start the new school year virtually instead of person, she felt both relief and guilt.

“I’m grateful that I will not be forced to choose between my students and my health and the health of my family,” said Ritt. But at the same time, she added, “I miss my students, and I know that they need in-person school.”

Masks can help make that possible by reducing the spread of the virus, she said. “I want schools to open. I want people to go back to work. I want the economy to grow again. I want people to be healthy. I want to hug my mom. That is why I wear a mask and socially distance. If we all come together we can protect ourselves and each other.”


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and 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.