Republican lawmakers across the state reacted to Gov. Tony Evers mask mandate Thursday, with one senator calling for an emergency session to end the order and another state representative calling Evers a dictator.
Evers issued a statewide mask mandate Thursday amid a spike in coronavirus cases, setting up a battle with Republican Legislative leaders who oppose such a requirement.
The governor declared a new public health emergency and ordered the wearing of masks for anyone age 5 and up starting on Saturday for all enclosed spaces except a person’s home. The new order also applies to outdoor bars and restaurants, except when people are eating or drinking.
Anyone who violates the order would be subject to a $200 fine. The mandate is scheduled to run until Sept. 28.
“I am calling on Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald to immediately call the Legislature back into session to pass a joint resolution ending Governor Evers’ new illegal and unnecessary emergency declaration,” said Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater. “The Legislature is empowered to end any emergency declaration issued by a governor through the simple passage of a joint resolution that doesn’t require the governor’s approval.”
Nass said Evers’ actions are nothing more than a political stunt to create a partisan fight with the Legislature.
“This is not about improving public health. Today’s emergency declaration is all about the November election and the weak performance of Democrats in this state,” he said.
Evers said he would welcome the Legislature meeting to address the pandemic, which it hasn’t done since mid-April. But he said it was a “sad commentary” that Nass wanted to reconvene just to kill the mask order.
“Obviously, he doesn’t believe that masks matter,” Evers said. “That’s fine; he can be one of those people that flouts the order. But to come in and have the Republicans say, essentially, ‘we don’t believe in science,’ it’s pretty risky business. It’s risky political business and risky health business.”
Nass said that since March, the actions of Evers and Department of Health Services Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm solidified both of them “as the two least trustful people that have served in state government in my entire time in the Legislature.”
“I can’t legally or morally trust either of these individuals with emergency powers,” he said.
State Rep. Cody Horlacher, R-Mukwanago, said in a statement titled “Dictator Evers’ Mask Degree” that he is irate about the mandate and is calling for Wisconsinites across the state to reach out to their elected officials.
“I would like to share my extreme opposition to this mandate from Gov. Evers. Although, I am not surprised by his actions, as they are consistent with his pattern of saying one thing and doing another (closing restaurants, closing schools, the spring election, statewide lockdown), I am enraged with today’s announcement,” he said.
Horlacher said wearing a mask is a personal choice and it is not the government’s role to tell a citizen to wear a piece of fabric. Businesses that want to require a customer to wear a mask are free to do so, he said, adding that there is no evidence that the cloth masks people are wearing have an impact.
“I have great concern about the enforcement of this mandate. This type of policy will only turn neighbor against neighbor,” Horlacher said.
“Many of these folks have lost their jobs and their businesses at the hand of Gov. Evers and now to add insult to injury, he is charging them a forfeiture as well,” he said.
In May, Republicans in the Legislature sued to kill the governor’s “Safer-at-Home” order. The conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court in May tossed out an order from Evers’ health secretary closing most nonessential businesses in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he opposes a statewide mandate, but he indicated that he would not sue to stop it like he did the “Safer-at-Home” order.
“There are certainly constitutional questions here,” Vos said. “I would expect legal challenges from citizen groups.”
Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which has sued Evers several times, said the governor “lacks the legal authority” to issue the order. Esenberg stopped short of promising a lawsuit, saying he was reviewing it.
Vos did not say whether the Legislature would reconvene to kill the order.
Evers repeatedly has cited the earlier Supreme Court ruling as a reason for his reluctance to join 32 other states that have mask mandates. However, the May ruling determined that the state health secretary overstepped her authority with the “Safer-at-Home” order; the court did not address the governor’s power to issue public health emergencies.
The state’s high court was controlled 5-2 by conservatives when it struck down the earlier order on a split 4-3 decision. But this Saturday, when the mask order takes effect, Justice-elect Jill Karofsky will join the court, narrowing the conservative majority to 4-3 and increasing the odds of the order surviving a legal challenge.
Evers said the rise in COVID-19 cases, not Karofsky’s joining the court, and the fact that not enough people wore masks voluntarily motivated him to act now. Evers had been under pressure from local governments, and even some Democrats, to issue a statewide order. Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson, of Milwaukee, started a petition for a statewide mandate.
“The bottom line is we need to keep people safe and this is one way to do it,” he said. “We hope the Supreme Court agrees with us. You never know, it may never end up in the Supreme Court.”
Numerous cities and counties across Wisconsin have already instituted mask mandates, including Milwaukee and Dane counties, Green Bay, Racine, Superior and Whitewater.
Wisconsin has had more than 52,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 919 deaths from the disease since the pandemic started. There have been 542 cases of COVID-19 in Jefferson County since the pandemic started.