A Wisconsin-wide mask mandate issued by Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday prompted support from Eau Claire health and government officials and drew mixed reactions from local legislators.
The statewide order, which comes amid a spike in coronavirus cases, is reassuring to health department and city leaders, who said Thursday that they welcomed a statewide mandate rather than considering piecing together local mask policies.
A statewide policy, rather than cities and counties making individual decisions, “makes it less confusing for all of us as citizens of this state,” said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.
“I see that use of cloth face masks in public, indoor settings is an important strategy … by definition I don’t believe a local response for something like this is really the best way to go, if we have this issue across the state, which we do,” Giese said at a Thursday news conference.
Eau Claire City Manager Dale Peters also expressed support for the new order: “We’re pleased that there is state leadership and direction on this important technique for combating the spread of COVID-19.”
City of Eau Claire leaders were slated to discuss a policy in August about the use of face masks in public. Peters said Thursday that, for now, the city will analyze the statewide order: “We’re going to be reviewing the next steps for implementing it at a local level.”
The new mandate “will help protect the capacity of our health care system and our health departments to adequately respond to people that contract the disease,” Peters added.
Evers, a Democrat, declared a new public health emergency, after his initial one expired in May, 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 slated to run until Sept. 28.
The statewide mandate sets up a conflict with Republican legislative leaders who oppose such a requirement and successfully sued earlier to kill Evers’ safer-at-home order.
Eau Claire County added 14 new cases of the coronavirus on Thursday, with 407 of the county’s 462 total cases recovered.
Though the county’s new cases each day “have plateaued a bit,” the county is still considered at a high level of COVID-19 activity, Giese said, noting that the county has seen a 112% increase in cases between June 1 and July 29, and an 87% increase between July 1 and July 29.
The mask mandate will lower state residents’ risk of contracting COVID-19, and “increases the likelihood we won’t be in a situation where we have to further limit what we do as a population,” Giese said.
Giese did not specify if the Eau Claire City-County Health Department will be involved in enforcing the statewide order, but noted that the department’s goal is “education first.”
“We will be working closely with law enforcement partners like we’ve done all along throughout the pandemic … we’re confident they will work together,” Giese said.
At least one northern Wisconsin law enforcement agency has said it won’t enforce the mandate. The Washburn County Sheriff’s Office Thursday afternoon announced in a Facebook post that it wouldn’t enforce Evers’ order, calling the order a violation of the first and eighth amendments.
Order comes as virus cases spike
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 joins 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.
Two Chippewa Valley legislators disagreed on the mandate’s effectiveness.
State Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, said Thursday she disagreed with Evers’ statewide mandate, saying she supported state residents’ “constitutional right” to decide whether or not to wear a mask.
“For this directive to come down from the governor at this moment in time makes all of us scratch our heads,” Bernier said Thursday.
State Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, said a statewide mask order is “what we need now to reverse the alarming recent trends in cases and deaths.”
“Thanks to Governor Evers’ leadership, our current patchwork of various local policies will be replaced by a uniform statewide standard based on the best available science,” Emerson said in a statement Thursday.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in a statement he expects citizen groups to challenge the order, condemning a “one-size-fits-all mandate” and questioning the legality of Evers’ move.
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 people to wear masks but did not mandate it.
Evers’ order doesn’t pre-empt local governments from enacting even stricter ordinances.
Evers had been under pressure from local governments, and even some Democrats, to issue a statewide order. State Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, started a petition for a statewide mandate.
Marshfield Clinic Health System also praised the policy, saying in a statement Thursday that face coverings and social distancing are “proven steps to decrease exposure.”
Wisconsin has had more than 51,000 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus and 911 deaths as of Wednesday. That death count is the 28th-highest in the country overall 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, also is spreading to more rural counties that had largely been immune from the coronavirus pandemic.