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Gov. Tony Evers Extends Statewide Mask Mandate

Mask Mandate Issued After Spikes In COVID-19 Cases; Extension Runs Until Nov. 21

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two people walk on a sidewalk near the capitol building in Downtown Madison while wearing masks
People walk in downtown Madison while wearing masks on July 22, 2020. Angela Major/WPR

Gov. Tony Evers has issued a new statewide mask mandate in Wisconsin, citing an increase in COVID-19 cases across the state.

The new order goes into effect immediately and will last until Nov. 21. It overlaps with a previous statewide mask order that was set to expire Monday. It is accompanied by a new public health emergency declaration in Wisconsin, the governor’s third public health emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic since March.

“We continue to learn more about this virus, but what we do know is that we are facing a new and dangerous phase of the COVID-19 pandemic here in Wisconsin,” Evers said in a prepared statement. “We are seeing an alarming increase in cases across our state, especially on campus.”

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Evers urged “folks to start taking this seriously…young people especially.”

Wisconsin set two new records for daily confirmed cases of COVID-19 last week, on Thursday and Friday. The state has now surpassed 100,000 cases. According to state Department of Health Services data, there has been a sharp increase in the number of 18-to-24 year-olds diagnosed with the virus since mid-August. Clusters of cases on college campuses have spurred several University of Wisconsin System schools to shift to virtual learning and impose dorm quarantines.

UW System interim President Tommy Thompson argued on Tuesday, after Evers’ new order was issued, that high case numbers on campuses could be chalked up to large-scale testing.

“Because of our robust testing program, we expected to identify cases, and we are effectively managing situations as they arise,” Thompson said in a prepared statement. “We have been working to create a culture of responsibility among our students, including a mandate to wear masks, while pursuing more aggressive actions as necessary.”

Last week, Thompson told WPR the UW System was behind its goals for weekly testing on campuses, in part because of inconsistent supply shipments from the company that makes the tests and an attempted diversion of equipment away from the system by the federal government.

The governor’s new mandate mirrors requirements in the previous mask order. It will require people 5 years old and older to wear masks in indoor or “enclosed” public places when people who don’t live with them are present. There are exemptions for certain activities, like eating, drinking and swimming.

The new order has the same $200 penalty for noncompliance as the previous mandate.

Political Divisions Over Mask Mandate Continues

The previous mask mandate, which was issued in July, highlighted political divisions across Wisconsin, with the GOP-controlled state Senate saying it was ready to override the order and a number of county law enforcement officials saying they would not enforce it.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, called the new mandate “not valid” and “not worth the paper it’s printed on,” but stopped short of saying an override vote was coming.

“Governor Evers’ order is moot, illegal, invalid, and almost assuredly headed for litigation,” Fitzgerald said in a prepared statement.

Republican state Sens. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, Dave Craig, R-Big Bend, and Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, all called for an override vote.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, called the order “obviously illegal” in a prepared statement on Tuesday afternoon, but also didn’t commit to taking legislative action against the governor’s declaration.

“Wisconsin’s lawless governor continues to rule by fiat and it must end,” Vos said. “No one branch of government can rule outside the letter of the law and go unchecked, even during a pandemic.”

The public health emergency declaration that made the previous mask order possible has been challenged in court.

After the new emergency declaration and mandate were announced Tuesday, the head of the conservative group that brought the lawsuit said “letting this gross abuse of power stand is not an option.”

Governor Evers and his team believe the presence of COVID-19 supersedes the rule of law and our state constitution,” said Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, in a tweet. “They are wrong.”

A spokesperson for WILL said the group’s attorneys “are reviewing the current order and need to discuss the matter with our clients before any decisions are made.”

Meanwhile, Democrats lauded the governor’s action.

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said he believes the renewed mandate will help curb the state’s recent record-setting case numbers.

“As we see a surge in cases, continuing the mask mandate will help us get through the next two months,” Hintz said in a tweet.

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