As COVID-19 cases continue surging in Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers' top health official Tuesday unveiled a new statewide order capping indoor public gatherings at certain businesses.
The move comes as the number of coronavirus cases Tuesday again rose over 2,000 after two days below that threshold, and as hospital beds dedicated to COVID-19 patients reached a record 782 on Monday.
"It is simply not enough to only wear a mask," Evers said. "We need folks to take further action to help stop the spread of this virus and flatten the curve."
He described the state's hospital system as "teetering" and "on the brink."
Also, over the weekend more than 200 physicians in hard-hit Brown County called on officials to do something to stop the spread.
"To say that providing care to these patients is severely straining our local hospitals, health care workers and health systems is a drastic understatement," the doctors wrote. "There's no other way to say it: We are overwhelmed."
Tuesday's order builds on the Democratic executive's second face coverings mandate and third public health emergency declaration, measures Evers had employed in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus.
Wisconsin remains among the top three states for the per capita rate of infection. Numbers of new cases has exceeded 2,000 for 13 of the last 20 days, with 2,020 reported on Tuesday and a record 2,892 cases on Saturday. The state reported 18 more deaths on Tuesday, bringing the total to 1,399.
Officials also said that the state's contact tracers, who are dispatched to counties that don't have enough of their own to handle a surge, are at capacity. Health officials say they now number more than 1,000, with 400 more coming online soon. But throughout the state contact tracers have more work than they can handle.
Even though Evers said he expects a court challenge to his order limiting gatherings, he directed Department of Health Services head Andrea Palm to issue it anyway.
Conservatives, with the support of GOP legislative leaders, have already challenged Evers' mask order, and the state Supreme Court in April revoked his stay-at-home order.
The state's top Republicans, who late last week filed a motion backing the lawsuit against the mask order, didn't immediately return requests for comment.
"If it is consistent with the past, then I guess we would expect to have a challenge in the court," Evers said of Tuesday's order. "We believe we can overcome that challenge just like we believe we can overcome the challenges on the present mask order."
Under the order, effective Thursday at 8 a.m., indoor public gatherings of more than 25% of a room or building’s total occupancy are banned. That includes gatherings at stores, restaurants, bars or other businesses that allow members of the public to enter.
The order doesn't shut down businesses or govern outdoor spaces controlled by businesses. It also doesn't apply to schools, governmental spaces, offices, manufacturing plants and other facilities only accessible by employees, nor is it enforceable for any events where protected speech is occurring, such as indoor political rallies, protests or religious gatherings.
As with the state's other orders, enforcement is up to localities, where officials can levy civil forfeitures of up to $500 against those not complying with the directive.
While the focus in recent weeks has been on the legality of Evers' repeated public health emergency declarations and his mask mandate, officials said the authority behind the latest language is separate from the powers in the emergency order.
Instead, the new directive relies on a part of state statute that allows DHS to limit public gatherings at schools, churches or other places to combat communicable diseases, provisions that weren't touched in the Supreme Court's May ruling striking down the extended stay-at-home order, Evers' legal counsel said Tuesday.
The order, which allows for more restrictive local requirements, is set to remain in place for two incubation periods of COVID-19, ending Nov. 6. Public Health Madison & Dane County in a statement Tuesday noted officials are reviewing the language "to see how it aligns with our current" local emergency order.
Legislature inactive since April
The GOP-run Legislature, which a recent WisPolitics.com review found has been the least-active full-time body in the nation since the pandemic began, hasn't convened since April, when lawmakers passed a COVID-19 relief package.
While Evers hasn't called the chambers back in special session to take up further virus-related measures, the Legislature could convene at any time for an extraordinary session.
Evers' Department of Health Services had proposed an administrative rule to put protections in place, after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the state's extended stay-at-home order in May, but it was quickly rejected by GOP Sen. Steve Nass, of Whitewater, who co-leads the committee that reviews those proposals.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this week that if conservatives win the lawsuit and strike down the mask mandate, "we'll be back in the governor's office the next day asking to sit down at the table and figure out a rule-making process and something we can all work on together to eradicate this."
It's unclear how that process would work given that Republicans and Evers are divided over how to handle the crisis and communication between the leaders appears to have been limited over the past few months.
A St. Croix County Circuit Court judge heard arguments Monday in the legal challenge seeking to temporarily block the mask mandate. But he didn't immediately issue a decision, saying instead he'd quickly deliver a written one.
In recent days, the COVID-19 crisis has dominated headlines in Wisconsin and nationally, as President Donald Trump tested positive for the virus, was hospitalized over the weekend, and then returned to the White House Monday. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson also recently contracted COVID-19, getting tested on his way to a county party fundraiser Friday and learning later in the evening he had tested positive.
Also on Tuesday, Evers announced $100 million in grants to provide coronavirus relief to businesses and communities. Half of that will go to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation's We're All In program, which aims to provide $5,000 grants to 10,000 struggling businesses.
Another $20 million will support the lodging industry, $15 million to aid live music venues, with more support for movie theaters, nonprofit cultural venues and the tourism industry.
"The sooner we get this virus under control, the sooner we can get back to the activities we all enjoy," Evers said. "But we also have to make sure that our favorite small businesses, venues and destinations are able to keep their doors open until we get there."
Reporter Steven Elbow contributed to this report.
Sign-up here for the Campaign Notes newsletter to get important Wisconsin politics updates in your inbox each Thursday, now through Election Day.