Republican State Senate Votes to End Mask Mandate

By Zac Schultz

January 27, 2021

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The Republican-controlled state Senate passed a resolution Tuesday that would end Gov. Tony Evers’ health emergency order and the statewide mask mandate.

The 18-13 vote passed despite bipartisan opposition—two Republicans and all the Democrats voted no—and over the objections of 20 major health organizations in Wisconsin. The resolution now moves to the Assembly, where Republicans could take the measure up on Thursday. Evers has no ability to veto a joint resolution.

The resolution says Evers exceeded his constitutional powers by declaring multiple new health emergencies related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each emergency declaration lasts for 60 days, unless the Legislature votes to extend or cut-short the emergency order. Evers renewed his emergency powers and the statewide mask order every 60 days since last summer.

Whether Evers can issue multiple emergency declarations related to the same emergency is currently being decided by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. That lawsuit was filed last year with Republican support.

At the time, legislative Republicans said they would rather challenge Evers’ emergency orders through the courts than overturning them via joint resolution. Last week it became clear the state Senate was prepared to use their own authority to reign in the governor’s emergency powers.

Groups like the Wisconsin Medical Society oppose the measure.

“We need to do all we can to prevent more deaths and help our economy return to normal,” society CEO Bud Chumbley said in a statement. “We ask all of our government leaders to support physicians and other front-line health care workers by promoting mask-wearing as an effective tool against COVID-19.”

Republicans in the Senate say they still encourage individuals to wear masks, but that this was about politics.

“Today, the Senate took a stand for liberty and the rule of law,” Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said. “Governor Evers has abused his limited authority for far too long by repeatedly issuing unlawful orders beyond his 60-day emergency powers. The Senate voted to end the executive overreach and restore our constituents’ voice in the legislative process.”

Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, is one of the Republicans who voted against throwing out the mask order. In a statement he listed 16 Republican governors who have issued mask orders in their states.

“In the months this mandate has been in place, I haven’t heard from any Wisconsin residents who’ve been cited for a violation of these orders.,” he said. “The imposition of the mask mandate has helped to get Wisconsinites to understand the importance of masks without spurring much if any enforcement action, but I fear that today’s repeal of the mandate could change the principle of mask wearing in Wisconsinites’ minds.”

While the Senate was working to roll back the mask order, Assembly Republicans were amending a bipartisan agreement on the next steps of coronavirus relief in Wisconsin. Last week the Senate amended Assembly Bill 1 to eliminate some of the more controversial measures passed by the Assembly. The bill passed with unanimous bipartisan support and Governor Evers said he would sign it into law if the Assembly signed off.

But Assembly Republicans re-amended the bill Tuesday to add back some of the provisions the Senate had removed, including a measure that would prohibit employers from mandating employees get the COVID-19 vaccine. Health organizations say it’s important that they can require employees to get vaccines.

Another measure added back in would prevent state or local health authorities from shutting down in-person worship services. A final measure would give the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee passive review over any federal dollars that come into the state to battle the coronavirus. Currently, Evers can spend federal dollars however he sees fit.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos spoke on the floor about his frustrations that Senate Republicans removed measures that would have made it more difficult to mandate virtual schooling and local business shutdowns.

“Now, all of those requests were made at the request of the Senate Republicans saying that they didn’t have the votes to pass them, which is disappointing to me. But I accept that that’s what they say their position is.”

The Senate will have the chance to take up the new version of the bill on Thursday. It’s not clear if this version would draw a veto from Evers.

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