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There’s plenty of reasons to worry in Wisconsin these days.
While the crucial swing state maintains its standing as a national hotspot for the coronavirus and spiking cases and hospitalizations have alarmed health experts and local officials, Republicans there are continuing to attack Democratic Gov. Tony Evers over the emergency authority he’s relying on to try and combat the virus.
“I don't care if (the governor’s) actions are warranted or not warranted, he is illegally acting,” said state Sen. Chris Kapenga, a Republican who opposes the governor’s mask order and is upset the governor isn’t working with the legislature when Kapenga feels legally he should be.
This maneuvering occurs as Wisconsin’s weekly average for new cases spiked by an alarming 180 percent month over month, according to a tweet earlier this week from the state’s department of health services. Wisconsin’s test positivity rate has also jumped in recent weeks, leaving local officials to grapple with rampant spread of the virus. And after hitting 717 new daily confirmed cases on Sept. 8, according to state data, the numbers have surged to more than 2,000 cases a day repeatedly since then, with a new high of 2,892 cases on October 3. That record was broken Thursday when the state reported 3,132 new cases in a single day.
“We’re in dire straits,” Ajay K. Sethi, an associate professor in population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin, said earlier this week. “As far as number of cases per capita, we’re among the highest in the country right now, along with other areas of the Midwest including North Dakota and South Dakota.”
Evers’ administration has responded to the crisis in recent days by issuing an order to limit indoor gathering to 25 percent occupancy for a range of places that covers places such as bars, stores and restaurants, according to guidance from the state. A day later, Evers announced that the state would soon start using a field hospital to treat COVID-19 patients, with his administration warning in a press release that “due to the surge in COVID-19 cases in September hospitals are now overwhelmed and fear reaching capacity.”
And making matters even more tense, the GOP led state legislature last week filed legal documents in support of a legal challenge put forward by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty that is attempting to get a temporary injunction against two of the governor’s public health emergency orders, as well as the statewide mask order.
The group announced it had helped file a lawsuit against Evers in late August that has pushed the same GOP argument seen in other states decrying the governor’s use of emergency powers instead of working with a GOP controlled state legislature as the pandemic continues on with no end in sight.
“The Court should grant the motion, declare that Executive Orders #82 and #90 (along with Emergency Order #1 – the Mask Mandate) are invalid and void, and enjoin the enforcement of any of those orders,” the attorneys for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty wrote late last month as they called for a temporary injunction.
The GOP-led Wisconsin Legislature filed court papers last Friday to show support for the plaintiffs in the case, with their attorney writing that the “court should enjoin the governor’s two most recent emergency declarations and vindicate Wisconsin’s constitutional separation of powers.” A hearing was held Monday, and the judge has yet to issue a decision.
The GOP’s role in the case met with a blistering response from Rep. Gordon Hintz, the leading Democrat in the Wisconsin Assembly in an interview this week.
“By spending taxpayer resources on attorneys to support a lawsuit by right-wing extremists, they are showing that they don't prioritize the lives and health of the public, the future of small business and containing the virus to be able to return to in person instruction,” Hintz said.
Wisconsin has provided a troubling portrait of hyper partisan political dysfunction throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
In early April after the pandemic shutdown the country, a last-minute attempt by Gov. Evers to delay the state’s primary election was thwarted by both Republicans and the state supreme court. And in May, the Evers administration’s safer-at-home order was struck down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court following a GOP-led challenge.
Both Republicans, and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty in a statement, have argued that the case isn’t about the impact of the public health measures, but rather an attempt to challenge what they believe is an illegal use of power by the governor that has circumvented the legislature.
Yet an in-depth survey of lawmakers about the court challenge by a trio of reporters at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published Thursday showed an overwhelming majority of Republican legislators in the state’s didn’t answer questions about whether they approved of the legislature’s involvement in the court challenge of the governor involving the mask order.
When The Daily Beast pressed Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, the chair of the Assembly’s health committee, about the matter he grew irritated at the questioning. He was adamant that the governor should be working with the legislature.
“You want me to say that I'm opposed to a mask mandate. I'm not opposed to masks, OK? I'm not. What I'm opposed to is a governor who thinks he can call all the shots by himself and ignore state law and ignore the Constitution,” Sanfelippo said.
And Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has maintained his criticism of the governor even amid the spike and the court case. In a statement Wednesday, the leading Republican noted ‘the surge of cases and hospitalizations is real,” as he called on people to “wear a mask, wash your hands, and maintain social distancing.”
“With cases once again rising, it’s clear the governor’s go-it-alone, grab-bag approach to responding to the coronavirus has been a failure,” Vos said in the statement about the latest emergency order from the governor's administration after he cast doubt about its legality. “We must work together in order to keep our businesses open and our citizens safe.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley asked Republicans to come back into session and “do the right thing,” with moves that would include a statewide policy on COVID-19 that also put forward a mask mandate.
That hasn’t happened, and GOP legislative leaders haven’t shown if or when that will change despite their continued attacks on Evers. They’ve also decided against returning to try and challenge the governor’s moves legislatively.
“Well I think number one, they are way behind the times and the science. We already have proven that masks work,” Bewley said. “And we know that we have major issues here in Wisconsin, we're a hotspot. So to ignore those two things and to waste the taxpayers money and all of this time to go to court to prevent the most reasonable action to fight COVID is to me not only ignorant, it's a neglect of duty.”
The conservative pushback over Evers’ current use of emergency powers to fight the pandemic in a move that is similar to the resistance other Democratic governors have faced, especially in recent weeks. In Louisiana, Republicans are keen on trying to limit the governor’s emergency powers in a special legislative session. And in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is facing fallout from a state Supreme Court ruling that took down an emergency powers law she’d been relying on amid vocal criticism from Republicans in her state.
The politicization of the pandemic response has long been an issue of grave concern for health experts, but as the pandemic wears on the battles don’t seem to be any closer to stopping.
“I think it's a national tragedy that we have seen what should be completely apolitical sound science become an ideological dogfight,” said Malia Jones, an associate scientist in health geography for the applied population laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The way this is supposed to work is that the science informs policy. And what we're seeing happen, not just in Wisconsin but nationally as well, is that political ideology is driving the ship in a time when what we need is science."