By Molly Beck and Patrick Marley, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide face mask order may be in jeopardy less than 24 hours after it was issued.
The state Senate’s Republican leader suggested Friday he has enough votes to bring senators back to the Capitol to block the order that takes effect Saturday. And at least seven county sheriffs in Wisconsin say they won’t enforce the mandate.
The opposition comes as local and state officials turn to face mask orders to help control the coronavirus outbreak, which has accelerated in areas of the country including Wisconsin.
“Republicans in the State Senate stand ready to convene the body to end the Governor’s order, which includes the mask mandate,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau said in a statement.
But Fitzgerald gave no indication of when he might take to the floor and GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester gave no indication of whether he would take up the cause. Both houses would have to pass a resolution to halt the mask order, and the Democratic governor would not have the power to veto it.
If Republicans who control the Legislature ended the public health emergency early, the state may no longer be able to use National Guard members as poll workers, according to the state Elections Commission. The move would also raise questions about whether the guard could be used to administer COVID-19 testing if a federal declaration funding the mission isn’t renewed.
Fitzgerald, who is running for a seat in Congress, said Evers “caved to the pressure of liberal groups” by issuing an order that requires Wisconsin residents age 5 and older to wear face coverings indoors unless in a private residence. It exempts lawmakers, judges, people eating and drinking, and people with medical conditions, among other exceptions.
“How can we trust that he won’t cave again and stop schools that choose in-person instruction this fall?” Fitzgerald said. “There are bigger issues at play here, and my caucus members stand ready to fight back.”
Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley of Mason rejected the idea.
“What is a bigger issue than 919 Wisconsinites losing their lives to COVID-19?” she said on Twitter.
Republicans control the Senate 18-13, with two vacancies. They control the Assembly 63-36.
Fitzgerald did not say whether he would take up other issues if senators return to the floor. Some have urged lawmakers to do more to fight coronavirus, eliminate monthslong delays with the state’s system for unemployment benefits and provide financial help to struggling farmers.
Republican Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills said she wanted to end the state mask requirement and leave it to local officials whether to have mask requirements in their communities.
“I think it should be up to local control and not be a demand from the governor as a major statewide mandate. Our state is different in different places and to take away local control to decide that I think really is an abuse of power,” she said.
“Are we anti-mask? No. Anti-science? No. But we need to do is look at the science, keep up with the COVID and know that the masks are important but that should be up to the individuals and local communities to decide what they want to do.”
If the Senate comes into session, she said she would like to also take up aid to farmers and unemployment benefits. But if her colleagues won’t agree to that, she said she would be willing to take up just the mask order.
She said she was not aware that ending the public health emergency could make it harder to use National Guard members as poll workers and cast doubt on whether it would affect COVID-19 testing.
She said she was confident local election officials could run the Aug. 11 primary and Nov. 3 general election without the aid of the National Guard.
Ahead of the April election for state Supreme Court, more than 100 communities said they were unable to open any polling locations because of a lack of poll workers. That was avoided when the National Guard was deployed.
Relying on the National Guard at the polls “is underestimating” the ability of local officials to conduct elections on their own, Darling said.
“Our poll workers are very committed to running elections and I respect them for that,” she said.
Mask requirement supported by public
A vast majority of adult Americans support face mask requirements, according to a national poll released by The Associated Press last week. Most Republican voters in the poll also said they supported the requirements, but the issue has become divisive including among elected Republican lawmakers and those who oppose government-imposed rules on daily life.
“This mandate is an overreach of government that is contrary to the oath of office I made to each and every one of you,” Washington County Sheriff Martin Schulteis said in a statement hours after Evers issued the order.
“I believe citizens have the expectation that your sheriff’s office should expend resources providing a safe and secure community by investigating real criminal acts.”
Schulteis is one of at least seven county sheriffs who have said their departments won’t enforce the governor’s order.
Waukesha County Sheriff Eric Severson said he “must prioritize the use of law enforcement resources and I am not inclined to use our finite resources on what is essentially a public health responsibility.”
In Washburn County in northwestern Wisconsin, the sheriff said because the rule was issued by executive order, and not a bill passed by the Legislature, he would not ensure it’s followed.
“You have an individual right to make your own medical decisions. We as government officials shall not intrude. The Constitution can’t be suspended, whether people get sick or not,” Sheriff Dennis Stuart said in a statement.
Rep. Rob Brooks, R-Saukville, said he would not require employees or patrons of his two restaurants in Saukville to wear masks despite the order requiring them inside restaurants unless patrons are eating and drinking.
“We understand that this is a controversial matter for some and we certainly understand and respect your decision to not dine in or visit us at this time,” he said in a Facebook post. “We will respect your decision — please respect ours.”
The state Department of Justice does not intervene in local law enforcement decisions to not enforce laws.
Local and state health departments, and Wisconsin residents, can refer violations to district attorneys.
Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.
Contact Molly Beck at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.