MADISON — In an abrupt about-face, Gov. Tony Evers issued a statewide order July 30 requiring the majority of Wisconsinites to wear face masks when inside most buildings.
The public health emergency order, which went into effect on Aug. 1, follows weeks of public statements by Evers that such a mandate was unlikely in Wisconsin. It also sets up another likely legal battle between the Democratic governor and state GOP leaders, who successfully sued to strike down Evers’ “safer-at-home” order in May. Republican leaders already have signaled opposition to the notion of a statewide mask order.
In a pair of executive orders, Evers again declared a public health emergency — his second this year aimed at combating the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected more than 50,000 Wisconsinites and killed more than 900 people — and issued a separate emergency order requiring masks. His first original order expired in May.
“While our local health departments have been doing a heck of a job responding to this pandemic in our communities, the fact of the matter is, this virus doesn’t care about any town, city, or county boundary, and we need a statewide approach to get Wisconsin back on track,” Evers said in a statement. “While I know emotions are high when it comes to wearing face coverings in public, my job as governor is to put people first and to do what’s best for the people of our state, so that’s what I am going to do.”
Under the new order, which expires Sept. 28, everyone age 5 and older must wear a face covering when indoors or in any enclosed space open to the public including bars, outdoor 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, 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.
The order provides some exceptions to the face mask mandate, allowing them to be removed when eating or drinking or when communicating with an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing, according to the order. In a preamble, the order calls on Wisconsinites not to harass or threaten people who wear a mask while “showing patience and compassion for those who are unable to wear a face covering safely.”
The state order also supersedes any less-restrictive local mask order but does allow local entities to enforce more restrictive mask rules.
GOP leaders have expressed support for local mask rules like those adopted in Dane County, Milwaukee, Green Bay and Racine. The Republican-controlled Legislature also has the authority to pass a state mask order, but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, have said they are not interested in a statewide mandate.
“I think wearing a mask should be voluntary and many people are already doing it,” Fitzgerald told the Associated Press.
Over a 14 day period from July 13 to Monday, Dane county had an average of 63 cases a day — an improvement from a month ago when the county’s 14-day average was 98 cases per day. But Director of Public Health Madison and Dane County Janel Heinrich said the case numbers are still too high.
“We continue to find that many individuals with positive diagnoses continue to report that they have attended a gathering or party with people outside of their household,” Heinrich said.
Current orders in Dane county limit indoor gathering to 10 people and outside gatherings to 25 people.
More than 30 states — including Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota — have implemented statewide mask orders in efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.
While Evers said recently the growing number of positive cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin had “accelerated” his consideration of a mask mandate, the governor has said multiple times that his authority to impose a statewide order is likely limited by the state Supreme Court’s May decision to toss out his stay-at-home order.
The court’s ruling focused on Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm’s extension of the Evers administration’s “safer at home” order, which closed nonessential businesses and limited services at others. The court ruled Palm exceeded the authority granted to her by state law when she extended the rule without legislative oversight.
“As a legal matter, it does not directly prohibit the governor from acting,” Jeffrey Mandell, a liberal Madison attorney who has worked for Evers, told the State Journal. “I think it would be overly simplistic for anyone to say, ‘Legislature v. Palm entirely decided the authority that Gov. Evers has with respect to COVID-19, that’s over and done with.’”
Guidance on mask-wearing from public health experts has at times been confusing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing a cloth face mask in public settings in areas with significant community-based transmission where social distancing is hard to maintain, such as grocery stores, pharmacies or a busy street. The CDC also recommended public mask-wearing after studies showed that COVID-19 can be spread by people showing no symptoms.
Various studies have shown that mask mandates have led to slowdowns of new COVID-19 infections and that masks have the ability to block respiratory droplets that could potentially spread the virus.
Research on the effectiveness of wearing face masks is limited, but the idea is that wearing a mask helps reduce the transmission of the virus from the wearer to people in proximity through talking, coughing or sneezing. Dr. James Conway, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, said cloth masks can achieve that quite well.
Opponents of a face mask requirement, including dozens of people who gathered at the state Capitol last week, have said wearing a mask should be a personal choice and mask mandates are an encroachment upon civil liberties.
State Journal reporter Emily Hamer contributed to this report.
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