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Republicans push to end Wisconsin's mask mandate
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Republicans push to end Wisconsin's mask mandate

Masked UW Student 100720 03-10142020161722 (copy)

University of Wisconsin-Madison theater major, Juliana Gessner wears a mask while she studies for her ecology class outside of Vilas Hall in October. A statewide mask mandate has been in place in Wisconsin since August.

Senate Republicans are planning to take the first step next week to end the only statewide COVID-19 regulation currently in place in Wisconsin: Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' mask mandate.

More than two dozen Republican lawmakers have signed onto a new resolution that, if taken up and passed by both the Senate and Assembly, would immediately cease Evers' extended face mask requirement and the public health emergency declaration that serves as its basis.

The language is set to be acted on by at least one chamber Tuesday, the Wisconsin Senate, after months of targeting the directives in court. 

The vote would come the week after Evers extended the mandate to March 20, continuing to require masks to be worn by everyone 5 and older indoors and in the presence of others who aren't part of their household, with some exceptions.

The mandate was first issued July 30, and has been reissued three times since, drawing the ire of some Republicans and spurring legal challenges. But while GOP lawmakers had the power to convene at any time to knock it down, they declined to do so in the months leading up to and following the November election.

Led by Sens. Julian Bradley, R-Franklin, and Steve Nass, a Whitewater Republican who has long called for the striking down of Evers' health orders, the joint resolution would terminate the public health emergency declaration and subsequent mask order, a step that the language says would "protect the integrity of the legislative powers authorized under the Wisconsin Constitution."

“The time has come for the Wisconsin Legislature to stand up for civil liberties and put an end to the excessive actions of Governor Evers to control the people of this state with unending Covid-19 emergency declarations," Nass said in a recent statement

The measure was included on the chamber's proposed calendar on Friday, though it's unclear whether the Assembly will act on it.

[About a third of Wisconsinites could soon be eligible for vaccine]

Under state law, the Legislature has the power to revoke an emergency order through a joint resolution passed by both chambers. But that didn't happen over the last few months, as recent Marquette University Law School poll results showed the mask mandate was supported by a majority of Wisconsinites.

The directives are currently before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, with conservatives arguing the governor doesn't have the power to issue multiple emergency declarations surrounding the same COVID-19 crisis without legislative approval. The court, which previously struck down the state's stay-at-home order, heard oral arguments in the case in November but hasn't yet issued a ruling.

Such orders are in effect for 60 days, under state law, and may be extended by the Legislature. But Evers has repeatedly argued the pandemic has evolved over the the last five months, necessitating additional public health declarations. Evers' current order cites, among other things, the state's recent detection of a new COVID strain, first found in the U.K., as the basis for the move.

Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback slammed the resolution in a statement Friday, saying while the governor has worked to curb COVID-19, "Republicans continue their efforts to hinder our state’s response."

"Republicans haven’t taken COVID-19 seriously from the beginning, and they still aren’t now more than 280 days since they last sent a bill to the governor’s desk," she added.

Evers' mask requirement doesn't apply to the state Legislature, where leadership is able to set its own rules for each chamber. Senate Democrats in their first day of session sought to amend a joint resolution directing the Department of Administration to re-open the state Capitol to the public to include a mask mandate, but they were unsuccessful.

[Public Health Madison & Dane County challenged again over COVID-19 restrictions]

COVID-19 has killed more than 5,500 Wisconsinites over the last year, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, while over 525,000 have tested positive for the virus.

The full Senate calendar for Tuesday also contains three dozen appointments for members to approve. But it doesn't list additional legislation, including the host of provisions that made their way through the committee process this week, such as two separate bills that would bar health officials, as well as employers, from requiring individuals to receive a COVID-19 vaccination; another to prohibit health officials from closing places of worship to curb the virus; and a final one that would require school board approval to allow virtual instruction.

Those measures were previously included in Assembly Republicans' original COVID-19 bill, but were stripped out by the Senate the last time members were on the floor, Jan. 12. Then, the chamber passed a slimmed-down COVID-19 plan that won bipartisan support and the backing of Evers.

That version hasn't yet been taken up in the Assembly, but it might be next week. The chamber is also looking at convening next week Tuesday afternoon, according to an email from Majority Leader Jim Steineke to members sent Thursday. The notice said the body has "plans to bring up Assembly Bill 1," the COVID legislation that previously passed the chamber and was amended by the Senate. But the offices of Steineke and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos didn't return requests for details about AB 1 or whether they'd also take up the resolution to end the mask mandate.

The email also asked members to hold next week Thursday for a potential session date.

If the statewide mask mandate is voted down, local orders would remain in effect. That includes Public Health Madison & Dane County's current emergency order, which includes a mask mandate.

That order also imposes a limit of 10 people for indoor gatherings, while relaxing an outdoor gathering limit to 50 people. Restaurant capacity is also limited to 25% for those dining in, while bars are only open for the purposes of ordering, picking up and paying for purchases.

Separately, President Joe Biden this week signed an executive order that requires interstate travelers to wear a face mask. The order would apply to air travel, trains, buses and more.

Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at WisPolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.

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