The Wisconsin state legislature could repeal Gov. Tony Evers’ latest statewide mask mandate despite widespread concerns from Wisconsin’s health care community that such a measure would be detrimental to the fight against COVID-19 in the state.
On Tuesday, the Senate passed the resolution on a 18-13 vote, with all Democrats and two Republicans, Sen. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, and Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Allouez, against.
The Assembly scheduled a vote on the resolution for Thursday. Since the vote is a joint resolution between the Assembly and Senate, Evers would not be able to issue a veto. If passed, the resolution would eliminate one of the few remaining tools Evers has to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in Wisconsin.
Health experts have continuously identified masks as integral to the fight against COVID-19.
“Other than vaccines, mask-wearing is one of the few tools we have in our arsenal to help prevent spreading COVID-19 even further than it already has,” Wisconsin Medical Society CEO Bud Chumbley said in a statement.
Evers first introduced the mask mandate on July 30 to slow the spread of the pandemic. The mandate was renewed three times after on Sept. 22, Nov. 20 and Jan. 19, as it was issued under a Wisconsin law which gives the governor the power to issue emergency orders for only 60 days.
The same law allows emergency orders to be repealed with a simple majority in both houses. Republicans had initially not chosen to wield this power, choosing instead to fight Evers’ orders in state courts. However, after Evers most recent renewal of the mask mandate, GOP leaders in the house decided to proceed with legislative efforts to repeal the emergency order.
Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, the lead sponsor of the bill to repeal the order, called Evers’ mask mandate an abuse of power despite its grounding in state law.
"Senate Joint Resolution 3 invokes the legislative powers authorized by the Wisconsin Constitution and state statutes to protect our form of government that includes three separate branches with limited powers, so as to protect the governed from abusive government," Nass said in a statement.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who also supports repealing the mask mandate, says that while he doesn’t think it’s the governor’s job to mandate mask-wearing, he still believes masks are effective.
“People should still wear a mask, especially if you’re in a group of people that you don’t know,” said Vos.
The GOP’s efforts to overturn the statewide mask mandate have received fierce opposition from Democrats, including Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison.
“Apparently the only thing that Republican legislators in both houses can agree upon is that they want the death rates to climb in this pandemic. They want to prolong the economic devastation,” Roys said in a statement. “Those are the two guaranteed outcomes of trying to undermine mask wearing.”
Health organizations around the state have also sharply criticized the GOP’s efforts. As of Tuesday, at least 24 organizations had registered against the repeal of the mask mandate, including the Wisconsin Hospital Association, Wisconsin Medical Society, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.
“Instead of passing commonsense COVID-19 initiatives to slow the spread and support working families during this unprecedented time, Republicans are choosing to prioritize a dangerous joint resolution to overturn our statewide mask initiative and end Wisconsin’s public health emergency,” Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Stephanie Bloomingdale said in a statement on Thursday. “This resolution puts front line workers at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus at work.”
The efforts to repeal the statewide mask mandate may additionally face opposition from Wisconsin residents. In a poll from Marquette University last October, 72 percent of Wisconsinites approved of the mask mandate while only 26 percent opposed.
Without a statewide mask mandate, it would be left to city and county officials to decide whether or not to enforce mask-wearing. Dane County Executive Joe Parisi has already committed to upholding the county’s mask order.
"Regardless of what the Wisconsin State Legislature does with the state's orders relating to masks, Dane County's mask order will remain in effect,” Parisi said on Tuesday. “We will keep trying to keep a lid on the horrors of this pandemic, and spare as many families as we can the painful realities that can come from contracting COVID-19.”
The impending vote to repeal the statewide mask mandate leaves Wisconsin out of step with the nation’s COVID-19 prevention efforts, as Wisconsin is likely to be one of only 9 other states which does not have a statewide mask order in place. Furthermore, it directly contradicts the leadership of the Biden administration, which just last week issued an executive order requiring masks to be worn on all federal property.