Evers Issues New Mask Mandate Hours After GOP Votes to Repeal

By Will Kenneally

February 4, 2021

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Tony Evers

Gov. Tony Evers delivers a video message announcing a new mask mandate hours after the Legislature voted to throw out the current mandate Feb. 4, 2020.

Gov. Tony Evers issued a new public health emergency and mask mandate just hours after the Assembly held the deciding vote to throw out the governor’s current mask order.

“Since the beginning of this pandemic, I promised I would: never play politics with your health, trust and follow science and public health experts, never stop doing everything I can to keep you healthy and safe,” Evers said in a video message Thursday afternoon. “I haven’t broken those promises and I won’t start today.”

Republicans had criticized the governor for issuing successive 60-day public health emergencies since August when the mask mandate was first implemented, without legislative support. A conservative-backed lawsuit is currently before the state Supreme Court to determine whether the governor can declare back-to-back emergencies over the same crisis.

In Thursday’s declaration, Evers cited new, more-contagious coronavirus strains as part of the rationale to declare a new emergency.

This however comes the same day Assembly Republicans voted to end the previous emergency declaration—which would have stopped the governor’s mask mandate.

Republican’s said the vote was not about the science of the pandemic, rather the rejection of a dictatorial power grab from Evers.

“I went and looked into the Encyclopedia Britannica and it said the definition of dictatorship is a form of government in which one person or a small group possesses absolute power without effective constitutional limitations. That’s what today’s about,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said during the floor session.

The legislature can terminate a governor’s emergency declaration before the 60-day time limit is up via a joint resolution. The Senate passed the joint resolution last week ahead of Thursday’s Assembly vote. The resolution will take effect Friday.

The move faced sharp criticism from Democrats, who said the repeal of the mask mandate puts Wisconsinites in danger.

“Public health, science, and common sense are the same today as they were yesterday,” Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said. “But COVID-19 is becoming more contagious and Assembly Republicans are prioritizing undermining [Gov. Tony Evers] placating an extreme anti-science movement.”

Vos said that public health measures like mask wearing and social distancing should be a matter of personal responsibility.

This notion was not universally shared even within the Republican caucus however, as seven Republican representatives joined Democrats in voting against the measure.

Rep. Jessie Rodriguez, R-Oak Creek, told reporters the timing of the mask mandate repeal “could send mixed messages to the public concerning our priorities,” considering a slow vaccine rollout in the state.

Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Assembly Republicans wrote a letter to the governor asking him to put forward a narrowly-tailored mask mandate through the administrative rulemaking process.

The letter asks for “reasonable masking requirements in places…such as health care facilities, nursing homes, mass transit, state government buildings, assisted living facilities, public schools, universities, and prisons.”

Going through the administrative rulemaking process would give legislative Republicans significant oversight over the state’s pandemic response.

The Assembly also voted Thursday to further curb the governor’s ability to declare future emergencies related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Assembly approved language to only allow the governor to declare a public health emergency to secure federal funds that require an emergency declaration or to activate the Wisconsin National Guard.

The Senate is expected to return to Madison Friday to approve that measure, which is tacked-on to a coronavirus relief bill.

The governor has not said whether he would veto the coronavirus relief bill that includes the emergency declaration amendment.

This story is developing and will be updated.

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