MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republicans in more rural parts of Wisconsin joined with business owners to push for a regional reopening plan Thursday to give the economy a boost, as the Department of Workforce Development warned that the state fund that pays unemployment claims could run out of money in five months.
Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said he worried that loosening restrictions meant to curb the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus in some parts of the state could lead to regional outbreaks. But he admitted that his next move will depend on how the Wisconsin Supreme Court rules in a case brought by Republicans challenging the authority of his health secretary to issue orders closing businesses.
Evers also said the state will offer free coronavirus testing to all African Americans, Latinos and tribal community members in the state. Minorities have suffered a greater rate of infections and deaths than their share of the population.
Evers’ “safer at home” order that closed most nonessential businesses is set to run until May 26. Republicans want to take authority away from Evers’ health secretary to issue future orders, requiring instead that she work with the the GOP-led Legislature on passing a rule.
Evers said on WTMJ radio on Thursday that he hoped to not have to extend that order, but the future of his powers now rests with the conservative-controlled court.
Republicans have been calling on Evers to consider a regional reopening because rural areas have had far fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19. Milwaukee has the majority of the state’s deaths and confirmed cases. Of the 374 deaths reported as of Thursday, 212, or 57%, were in Milwaukee County. It also had about 39% of the state’s confirmed cases.
Republican lawmakers held news conferences Thursday with business leaders in Appleton, Wausau and Chippewa Falls to call for a regional reopening plan. Republicans have not put forward their own plan to counter what Evers has offered, which is statewide and relies on a drop in COVID-19 cases before there can be a widespread loosening of restrictions.
“We shouldn’t have a Republican plan or a governor’s plan, we need a Wisconsin plan that the entire state can get behind,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a statement.
Evers, speaking earlier on WTMJ, wouldn’t rule out the possibility of reopening some less affected parts of the state sooner than others, but he worried about the potential for an outbreak.
“I never say never in this situation,” Evers said of regionalization. “There may be cases where we do it. I think we can do a lot of things, reopening, that are statewide and impact all counties at the same time.”
In the latest sign of how hard-hit Wisconsin has been by the virus, the Department of Workforce Development said the state could run out of money to pay unemployment benefits to workers who lost their jobs as early as October 11. That was the worst of three scenarios laid out by the department. The other two, which assume fewer unemployment payments, project that the fund will be depleted in January or September 2021.
If the state runs out of money, it could borrow from the federal government so that the unemployed would still receive benefit checks, said department spokesman Ben Jedd.
The state lost out on $25 million in federal funding because of a two-week gap between when the federal aid bill took effect and Wisconsin passed its measure waiving a one-week waiting period to get benefits, Jedd said. Evers had called for faster passage of the state package, but Republicans said they needed time to examine the federal law before proceeding.
The department has been overwhelmed with calls from people filing for unemployment and asking questions about their eligibility. Last week alone, the department said it received 4.7 million calls about unemployment benefits.
Evers said that the state was adding people and “working hard” to process claims. While some people have complained of waiting as long as six weeks to get their first check, Evers said the state was meeting the needs of the “vast majority” of filers.
Evers announced his free testing plan for minorities in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He said the testing would be done by Wisconsin National Guard members at sites throughout the state, starting in the next few days in Milwaukee, where black residents have been hit particularly hard.
“These disparities existed before this pandemic. But what we can do in this present circumstance is we have to, have to, have to test more people,” Evers told the newspaper.
Evers’ deputy chief of staff, Melissa Baldauff, later added that anyone with COVID-19 symptoms, regardless of race or ethnicity, can get a free test at the community sites.