Republican leaders in the state Legislature say they support Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ current plan to proceed with in-person voting in the April 7 election — a decision that has drawn criticism over concerns that doing so in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak could put people at risk of infection.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, expressed support for continuing with plans to hold the election, which features a Wisconsin Supreme Court race, presidential primary and hundreds of local races, on April 7, while also encouraging absentee voting.
“I support the decision to move forward. I know we can do it safely and at this point I’m agreeing with Gov. Evers that we should continue,” Vos said. “I think this is too important for us to not move forward.”
Vos added that lawyers notified him that Evers would need legislative approval to postpone the vote or move it to an all mail-in election — as some Wisconsin officials and organizations, such as the League of Women Voters, have suggested.
The city of Green Bay and the city’s clerk, Kris Teske, on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit that alleges local governments are finding it “functionally impossible” to administer the election and maintain social distancing.
Also this week, Madison’s city clerk said roughly half of poll workers scheduled to work the election have canceled. In Middleton, 25 of the city’s 72 poll workers, including two chief inspectors, will not staff Election Day.
“I understand, things are getting much different out there and there are obviously a lot of concerns about what will that look like on Election Day … with the amount of poll workers and volunteers that you’re going to need,” Fitzgerald said. “So we’re monitoring it very closely … but at this point I don’t see a change.”
Both Vos and Fitzgerald said they are considering legislative action in reaction to the coronavirus, but first they want to get a handle on how the $2 trillion stimulus package being worked out by Congress will impact the state.
“We cannot do anything until we understand what’s happening from Washington, D.C.,” Vos said.
One thing that seems certain, Vos said, is the state likely no longer has extra dollars in the state budget. Earlier this year, the state was expected to close out the biennium with a general fund balance of about $620 million.
“We have to be very judicious in how we spend the state dollars because we already know the surplus is gone,” Vos said.
Neither lawmaker provided many specifics on what sort of legislation might be in the works but did say they are considering a temporary suspension of the state’s required one-week waiting period before someone can receive unemployment benefits. Evers’ has suggested waiving the requirement entirely.
Vos also said he will be looking at ways of “getting rid of red tape” to expedite access to assistance or ease the licensing process for professionals.
As of Wednesday, the state reported 585 cases of COVID-19, including 88 in Dane County. More than 10,000 tests have come back negative. Six deaths have been reported from the virus, including the first in Dane County reported Wednesday and others in Fond du Lac, Ozaukee and Milwaukee counties.
‘Safer at home’
Evers on Tuesday ordered nonessential businesses to shut down until April 24, while exempting a wide range of employers, from farms and factories to grocery stores and retailers that supply those working from home.
Vos and Fitzgerald said they felt the directive, which was announced Monday before details were revealed on Tuesday, created confusion among some business owners and employees. They said they still are working through the order to determine its full impact.
“No, it wasn’t the smoothest thing that certainly has happened so far, but I understand,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re in a difficult period of time here and things like that are going to happen.”
The “safer at home” order went into effect Wednesday and forces many businesses that draw walk-in traffic to close as officials try to minimize the spread of the respiratory disease.
State officials have asked individuals with questions on the directive, including those with businesses or places of employment that have been ordered closed, to visit the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.’s website, wedc.org/essentialbusiness. The site includes a form that can be submitted if a business believes it should be exempted.
WEDC spokesman David Callender said the corporation had received nearly 2,000 inquiries as of midday Wednesday regarding the order.
“WEDC is receiving an unprecedented volume of inquiries from citizens looking for help for their businesses and employees,” Callender said in an email. “WEDC staff are fielding hundreds of these inquiries every day and are trying to respond as quickly as possible. We are asking companies to be patient with us, to not re-submit their inquiries.”
Callender added that businesses that have been identified as nonessential under the rule are required to follow the order, while those that are unsure if they are subject to the directive should contact WEDC for clarification.
Focus on caution
Evers has said the order is based on input from health care experts and scientists along with those in the business community.
Without the order to close more businesses, state health officials said the outbreak could rise to 22,000 cases of the respiratory disease, including 440 to 1,500 deaths, within two weeks. An increase in cases still is expected for the next few weeks, but officials have said the hope is to see numbers begin leveling off.
Job loss began to skyrocket across the state more than a week before the “safer at home” order was issued, with more than 105,000 initial unemployment insurance claims made from March 18 through Tuesday, according to preliminary numbers from the Department of Workforce Development. Just over 4,800 initial claims were made in the same seven-day span last year.
On Tuesday, DWD announced that, in accordance with Evers’ order, the department’s job centers will be closed to the public. Services will remain available online and over the phone.
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