Wisconsin governor orders masks statewide amid virus surge

Scott Bauer
Associated Press

Madison, Wis. – Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday issued a statewide mask mandate amid a spike in coronavirus cases, setting up a conflict with Republican legislative leaders who oppose such a requirement and successfully sued to kill the governor’s “safer at home” order.

Evers, a Democrat, declared a new public health emergency and ordered the wearing of masks for anyone age 5 and up starting on Saturday for all enclosed spaces except a person’s home. The new order also applies to outdoor bars and restaurants, except when people are eating or drinking.

Anyone who violates the order would be subject to a $200 fine. It is scheduled to run until Sept. 28.

In this Dec. 4, 2019 file photo, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers speaks in his Statehouse office in Madison, Wis. Gov. Evers on Thursday, July 30, 2020, issued a statewide mask mandate amid a spike in coronavirus cases, setting up a conflict with Republican legislative leaders.

“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, citing the recent rise in cases across the state. “We’ve said all along that we’re going to let science and public health experts be our guide in responding to this pandemic, and we know that masks and face coverings will save lives.”

The conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court in May tossed out an order from Evers’ health secretary closing most nonessential businesses in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

Evers has repeatedly cited that ruling as a reason for his reluctance to join 32 other states that have mask mandates. However, the May ruling determined that the state health secretary overstepped her authority with the “safer at home” order; the court did not address the governor’s power to issue public health emergencies.

The state’s high court was controlled 5-2 by conservatives when it struck down the earlier order on a split 4-3 decision. But on Saturday, when the mask order takes effect, Justice-elect Jill Karofsky will join the court, narrowing the conservative majority to 4-3 and increasing the odds of the order surviving a legal challenge.

Republican legislative leaders brought the earlier lawsuit. While they oppose a mask mandate, they have stopped short of saying whether they would sue if Evers enacted one.

Evers said that although “emotions are high when it comes to wearing face coverings in public,” he issued the order because he believed it was in the best interests of the people.

Absent a statewide mask order, cities and counties across the state have been taking action on their own. Milwaukee and Dane counties, with Wisconsin’s largest cities of Milwaukee and Madison, were the first to make masks mandatory. Numerous other cities, including Green Bay, Racine, Superior and Whitewater, have followed suit. Appleton this week recommended that people wear masks, but did not require it.

Evers’ order doesn’t preempt local governments from enacting even stricter ordinances.

Evers had been under pressure from local governments, and even some Democrats, to issue a statewide order. Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson, of Milwaukee, started a petition for a statewide mandate.

Wisconsin has had more than 51,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 911 deaths from the disease since the pandemic started. That death count is the 28th-highest in the country and the 35th highest per capita, at nearly 16 deaths per 100,000 people. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has gone up by 90, an increase of more than 11%.

The virus, although still heavily concentrated in urban areas, is spreading to more rural counties that had largely avoided the disease.