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GOP effort to eliminate Tony Evers' statewide mask mandate heads to Assembly
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GOP effort to eliminate Tony Evers' statewide mask mandate heads to Assembly

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Republicans in the state Senate voted Tuesday to repeal Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide mask mandate — a proposal that would effectively eliminate one of the state’s only remaining preventive measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, if it also passes the GOP-led Assembly.

The Senate voted 18-13 in favor of the joint resolution, which has been cosponsored by more than two dozen state Republicans. Sens. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, and Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, joined all of their Democratic colleagues in opposition to the resolution.

A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the resolution will come before the Assembly on Thursday, but did not indicate how much support the measure has in the chamber. Republican leaders in the Assembly have not sponsored the resolution.

As a joint resolution, the item just needs to pass both chambers and does not require the governor’s approval. Evers’ latest emergency order and mask mandate are slated to run until March 20.

The Assembly on Tuesday voted along party lines in support of amendments to a COVID-19 response bill passed earlier this month by the Senate.

While Evers has said he supports the Senate-authored package, Assembly Republicans reintroduced items that were included in the chamber’s original package, but ultimately were removed by the Senate in an effort to garner bipartisan support.

Measures added back to the bill would prohibit employers from mandating vaccines for employees and allow local public health officials the ability to limit gatherings at churches and other places of worship. Another amendment would grant the state’s GOP-led budget committee authority over how the state spends future federal funds dedicated to the pandemic — a measure Evers has opposed.

Other items in the package that already have passed the Senate would limit COVID-19 liability claims against employers, schools, public health care providers and local governments. It also would extend the state’s one-week waiting period waiver for unemployment benefits and allow for Medicaid coverage for COVID-19 testing and vaccines.

The measure now heads back to the Senate. The GOP-led Legislature has not sent a pandemic-related measure to Evers’ desk since April.

If the Assembly votes Thursday to eliminate the state mask rule, local orders, like those in Madison and Milwaukee, would remain in effect. Dane County’s local order requires everyone age five and older to wear a mask when indoors, with some exceptions.

Evers has made multiple extensions to his statewide emergency order and accompanying mask mandate since it first went into effect in August. The Democratic governor and public health officials have touted the mask requirement as a pivotal step in mitigating transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

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Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, described a vote to repeal the mask mandate as “a gift” to the coronavirus.

“It’s a vote in favor of overwhelmed hospitals, for more death and despair,” Roys said in a statement. “Healthcare organizations and frontline workers are begging Wisconsinites to wear masks, especially as we face a new highly contagious strain of coronavirus. But legislative Republicans — many of whom refuse to wear masks themselves — are hellbent against anything the governor does to save lives. This is as disgraceful as it is tragic.”

State Republicans have accused Evers of exceeding his authority by issuing multiple emergency orders to extend the mask mandate. GOP lawmakers have said the governor must seek approval from the Legislature for any order beyond the standard 60 days.

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said the chamber “took a stand for liberty and the rule of law.”

“Governor Evers has abused his limited authority for far too long by repeatedly issuing unlawful orders beyond his 60-day emergency powers,” he said. “The Senate voted to end the executive overreach and restore our constituents’ voice in the legislative process.”

Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, who authored the joint resolution, has been calling on the Legislature to overturn Evers’ emergency order and accompanying mask mandate since August.

“This is not about whether face masks are good or bad,” Nass said. “This is about repeatedly issuing emergency orders contrary to what the law allows. It’s about the rule of law.”

Members of the Evers’ administration have defended the use of multiple emergency orders to extend the mask mandate as a means to adjust to the changing and ongoing pandemic. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has yet to rule on a challenge to the mask mandate.

Speaking on the floor Tuesday, Kooyenga said his concern was that eliminating the mask mandate could further prevent schools from reopening. He asked the state Supreme Court to settle the question of whether or not Evers can pass repeated emergency orders.

The move by state Republicans to overturn the statewide mask rule has been opposed by more than 20 groups representing public health organizations, churches and assisted living facilities. No organizations have registered in favor of the joint resolution.

Dr. Robert Freedland, an ophthalmologist in La Crosse, said in a statement that repealing the statewide mask rule “would be unbelievably reckless and irresponsible.”

“With the safe, effective vaccine being distributed now, the end of this pandemic is within sight if we remain vigilant until enough Wisconsinites are vaccinated to stop the spread,” Freedland said. “Until then, masks are the best tool we have to prevent new cases and more unnecessary deaths.”

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