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Gov. Tony Evers calls on GOP lawmakers to lead by example and comply with state mask order
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Gov. Tony Evers calls on GOP lawmakers to lead by example and comply with state mask order

State Street

Gov. Tony Evers' new mask order, like the one that preceded it, requires anyone 5 and older to wear a face covering when indoors or in any enclosed space open to the public. Face coverings are also strongly recommended outside when physical distance is difficult to maintain, like along State Street in Madison, above.

In order for Wisconsin’s mask mandate to be effective, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said state leaders — primarily Republicans — need to lead by example.

Speaking with reporters Thursday, Evers said he understands it’s unlikely local law enforcement officials will pursue the $200 fine associated with not following the statewide mask order, but he said elected officials can help by complying with the mandate. Evers extended the order earlier this week through Nov. 21, resulting in pushback from Republican leaders in the state.

Evers was addressing photos he has seen circulating on social media portraying GOP-related campaign or fundraising events where many elected officials and participants are not wearing masks or practicing social distancing recommendations.

“I think it’s important that everybody wear masks, obviously,” Evers said. “It starts at the top, we will continue to do what we can. Hopefully our Republican leaders will follow and we’ll make a difference.”

State Republicans have pushed back on Evers’ mask order, with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, describing this week’s latest order as illegal.

When Evers ordered state workers to wear masks in state buildings including the Capitol this summer, Fitzgerald said he wouldn’t “be pushed around by Dane County or the Evers Administration.”

“Senators should be able to decide what they do in their own offices,” Fitzgerald said in July.

Vos and Fitzgerald did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Hospitalizations climbing

With COVID-19-related hospitalizations surpassing 500 statewide this week, Department of Health Services officials stressed the need for better compliance with the mask order as flu season nears.

“I think it is exactly one of the things that make this a critical moment in our response and why we need to together make choices that will help reduce the spread of this disease,” DHS Secretary Andrea Palm said.

As of Thursday, more than 106,000 Wisconsinites had tested positive for COVID-19 and 1,265 people had died as a result of the respiratory disease, according to DHS. The seven-day average of newly reported cases reached 1,939 on Thursday. The seven-day average was at 665 daily cases one month ago.

Wisconsin had a record 528 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 Thursday, up 19 from Wednesday and well above the previous peak of 446 in early April. Much of the recent increase has been in the Fox Valley, which had 83 COVID-19 patients hospitalized Wednesday, up from 13 in late August.

Dane County’s latest data show 23 patients hospitalized with the coronavirus Wednesday, half of its peak in early April.

“As we see flu season come into play, our front-line health care workers and hospital systems are going to have to not only treat what they see on a regular basis plus COVID, but now are faced with a flu season which does always result in hospitalizations and death, that is just something we know happens every year,” Palm said. “It’s more important this year than any year to get a flu shot.”

Mask order

Announced by Evers on Tuesday along with a third COVID-19-related public health emergency order, the new mask mandate is effective immediately and remains in place through Nov. 21 or until a superseding order is passed. Evers’ original order was set to expire Monday.

The state order supersedes any less-restrictive local mask order but allows local entities to enforce more restrictive rules. UW-Madison already has a campus-wide mask order and Dane County earlier this year passed a mandate that is more restrictive than the state rule.

Evers and DHS officials have touted the order as necessary for reducing the spread of COVID-19. Cases have been rising steadily over the last several weeks, primarily among 18- to 24-year-olds in college communities — despite the presence of a state mask order since July.

On Thursday, Public Health Madison and Dane County reported a significant decrease in the number of positive COVID-19 cases from UW, paired with an increase from cases outside the university over the last two weeks.

Public Health Madison and Dane County reported 65% of Dane County cases — 1,631 total cases — over the last two weeks were from UW-Madison, down from 76% last week.

The state mask order requires everyone age 5 and older to wear a face covering when indoors or in any enclosed space open to the public, including outdoor bars and restaurants, public transit and outdoor park structures. The order does not apply to people in their private residences. Face coverings are strongly recommended in all other settings where people may come in contact with others, including outdoors when maintaining physical distance is not possible. A violation of the order would not bring any criminal penalties but could result in a $200 fine.

Evers’ second public health emergency already faces a legal challenge from the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), which alleges the governor cannot unilaterally extend a public health emergency or declare multiple emergencies in response to the same crisis. The group did not seek an immediate injunction to stop enforcement of the governor’s mask mandate.

Officials with WILL said attorneys are reviewing the governor’s latest order.

Football parties a concern

While fans will not be allowed in Camp Randall Stadium when UW football kicks off its home season on Oct. 24, Evers said he remains concerned about the possibility of large gatherings to watch the game.

“That is a huge issue for us,” Evers said. “We’re going to actually be asking the Big Ten to help out with that.”

Evers asked the Big Ten Conference, which announced earlier this month that football would begin in October, to help spread the message against large gatherings.

“They need to step up and have a significant stake in this game,” Evers said. “Football is about football players and football fans.”

College funding

Also on Thursday, Evers announced $8.3 million in aid to support COVID-19 testing at the state’s private, nonprofit and tribal colleges and universities. The effort will be funded with Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act dollars.

The program will be administered by the Department of Administration and reimburse colleges for COVID-19 testing, specimen collections and other related costs.

“No campus exists in a bubble, so it is critical that we all work together to stop the spread of this virus for the health and safety of not only those on our college campuses, but for Wisconsinites in every corner of our state, and testing is a key step in doing just that,” Evers said in a statement.

State Journal reporter David Wahlberg contributed to this report.

COVID-19 in photos: How Wisconsin is managing the pandemic

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