MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday urged Wisconsin residents to wear a face covering, once again saying he’s considering making masks mandatory, as the number of newly confirmed COVID-19 cases topped 1,000 for the second time in three days.
Evers, a Democrat, said if a mask mandate wouldn’t likely be challenged in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, he would issue an order immediately. His previous “safer at home” order that closed most nonessential businesses, but did not mandate the wearing of masks, was struck down by the conservative-controlled state Supreme Court in May after Republican lawmakers challenged it.
“Frankly, folks can right now put on a mask,” Evers said. “There’s nothing to prevent you from doing it.”
Republicans who control the Legislature are opposed to a mask requirement. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald did not immediately respond to messages asking whether they would legally challenge any mask mandate Evers may issue.
“I think wearing a mask should be voluntary and many people are already doing it,” Fitzgerald said.
Evers’ exhortation for people to voluntarily wear masks came as about 50 people rallied outside the Capitol against a mask mandate. Many speakers argued that the government would infringe on their freedoms by ordering masks to be worn.
“We will not comply,” one sign said. Another said, “You won’t take away our freedom.”
“We just want to be left alone,” said rally organizer Madison Elmer. She and others also organized a May rally opposed to Evers’ “safer at home” order. That event attracted a far larger crowd of around 1,500.
Despite the anti-mask rally, polls have shown broad support for wearing masks to help fight the virus.
For months, health officials around the world and in Wisconsin have said several simple steps could save lives — washing hands frequently, staying away from crowds, especially while indoors, and pulling on a mask when heading out.
“There’s no conspiracy, folks,” Evers said. “Wearing a face mask will help protect the people around you. … Unfortunately, there are some folks in the state who don’t believe that masks help. We know they do, there’s no question. Even Donald Trump has said it’s a good idea.”
Pressure for a statewide mask mandate has increased as other states and Wisconsin cities have enacted orders as the number of positive COVID-19 cases has spiked. Wisconsin recorded 1,052 newly confirmed cases on Thursday, which was just shy of the record high of 1,117 it set on Tuesday. The state has had nearly 45,000 confirmed cases and 878 deaths since the outset of the pandemic. The death toll rose by 13 on Thursday.
Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm said over the past month, one third of the new cases have been people in their 20s. Palm said a “significant number” of those who tested positive reported recently attending a party, going to a bar or attending a barbecue.
“We can’t continue on the path we’re on,” Evers said, calling the current trajectory “dangerous” and “unsustainable.”
Statewide, there were 354 people hospitalized due to COVID-19, an increase of 61 in the past week, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association. The peak in hospitalizations was 446, reached on April 9.
Also on Thursday, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission voted to extend a moratorium on utility shutoffs until Sept. 1. It had been scheduled to expire on Friday, but commissioners said given the continued risk in coronavirus cases, it would be dangerous to shut off power from people, a move that could lead many of them to shelter someplace else.
According to the PSC, more than 71,000 households were at risk of losing electricity, gas or water service beginning Saturday.