One day after the state reported a record 92 COVID-19-related deaths, Gov. Tony Evers announced Wednesday he plans to extend the state’s emergency declaration and accompanying mask mandate through mid-January.
The Department of Health Services reported another record of nearly 8,000 new cases Wednesday, along with 52 deaths, bringing the state total to 2,793 deaths and more than 331,000 cases. Rising cases have placed an immense burden on hospitals and health care providers across the state, with one-third of the state’s hospitals reporting critical staffing shortages. Another 41% of hospitals expect to reach critical shortages within a week, DHS Secretary Andrea Palm said.
Evers has declared three public health emergencies and issued a series of related orders since the pandemic began. The current mask mandate was issued in July and extended by Evers in September. It was slated to expire on Saturday.
“It’s clear based on where we’re headed, we cannot afford to stop or have a gap in some of the only mitigation efforts we still have in place,” Evers said on a call with reporters Wednesday.
Evers said he plans to formally issue the latest order this week, but added there are no plans for any accompanying requirements beyond the mask mandate. Evers has pointed to court rulings in recent months, including the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision in May to strike down his stay-at-home order, as severely hindering his options with regard to mitigation efforts.
“I think that’s where we’re at at this point in time,” Evers said.
Evers’ current emergency declaration and accompanying mask mandate is before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, following a lawsuit that contends the governor’s actions in recent months to mitigate the spread of the virus are an unconstitutional overreach of power.
“Every time we’ve issued an order, there’s been folks who have tried to litigate against it,” said Evers’ chief legal counsel, Ryan Nilsestuen. “We had oral arguments earlier this week in a case that addresses the governor’s ability to issue public health emergencies. I think that will provide clarity on the path forward rather than a new lawsuit.”
However, during oral arguments Monday, it appeared the state’s current emergency order and mask mandate could be struck down by the court, which would put the issue in the hands of local governments or the Legislature, which has the power to pass laws to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.
Evers called on Republicans in the Legislature to support the state’s mask mandate and encourage compliance statewide.
While public health officials long have said wearing a face mask can prevent the spread of respiratory droplets to others, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month reported that cloth face coverings also can reduce the wearers’ exposure to infectious droplets.
Dr. Ryan Westergaard, a chief medical officer with DHS, said models show that 80% to 90% compliance with the use of face masks is necessary to have an impact on the pandemic.
“The additional protection that we need beyond masks is staying home,” he said. “That’s where we’re at. It needs to be complete, absolute, everyone, statewide stay home. That’s in addition to masks when you need to be out.”
On Wednesday, a new order in Dane County went into effect to ban large indoor gatherings and limit outdoor gatherings to 10 people, with physical distancing. The order remains in effect until Dec. 16. The county continues to require face coverings and limit the capacity for most businesses to 50%, along with many other provisions.
Evers sent a proposal to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, on Monday for $541 million in COVID-19-related measures aimed at making unemployment insurance more accessible, prohibiting evictions and waiving school assessments through the end of next year.
Evers on Tuesday released a summary of the 19 bills to news outlets after Vos scheduled a COVID-19 press conference later that day. However, Vos announced during the meeting with reporters that he had not drafted any legislation, but rather had ideas Assembly Republicans would like to propose.
Vos said the Republican-run Assembly likely would not convene until December at the soonest. It also remains to be seen if the GOP-run Senate would also take up any legislation. The office of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has not responded to multiple requests for comment on the matter.
Evers said not convening until December or early next year was “a bad timeline.” He noted that GOP lawmakers convened shortly after his 2018 victory over incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker to pass legislation to limit the incoming governor’s power.
“At the end of the day, two years ago they made it back in in December to do a lame duck session,” Evers said. “I see no reasons why we can’t do it to save lives here in Wisconsin.”
Evers said he still hopes to meet with legislative leaders on statewide measures to address the ongoing pandemic.