MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature are considering ending the statewide mask mandate designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus and could do so by passing a resolution as soon as next week.
Twenty-seven Republican lawmakers signed on to the resolution that was introduced Thursday. It would have to pass the Senate and Assembly in order to end the public health emergency and undo the mask mandate issued by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Because it’s a joint resolution, it wouldn’t require Evers’ signature to take effect.
“While Gov. Evers works to keep Wisconsinites healthy and safe and distribute vaccines across our state, Republicans continue their efforts to hinder our state’s response,” Evers’ spokeswoman, Britt Cudaback, said in a statement. “Republicans haven’t taken COVID-19 seriously from the beginning, and they still aren’t now more than 280 days since they last sent a bill to the governor’s desk.”
Evers supports a bipartisan coronavirus response bill the Senate passed last week but that Assembly leaders oppose.
Evers first issued a statewide mask requirement in July and has extended the order three times, most recently on Tuesday. The current mandate is scheduled to expire March 20.
Public health experts have urged the public to wear masks, wash hands and maintain social distancing to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos cut a public service announcement urging people to wear masks, but he also signed onto a lawsuit challenging Evers’ authority to issue repeat emergency health orders and mask mandates. Neither Vos nor Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu immediately replied to messages asking if the resolution to rescind the mask requirement would receive a vote. Neither of them co-sponsored the resolution, but Senate President Chris Kapenga did.
The resolution was brought by Sens. Julian Bradley and Steve Nass in the Senate. Nass’s spokesman, Mike Mikalsen, said it would be up for a vote on Tuesday.
“From day one, I’ve been ready to repeal Governor Evers’ unconstitutional edicts,” Bradley, a freshman lawmaker from Franklin, said in a statement. “The governor has grossly overstepped his authority. I am hopeful that the Senate will vote for this resolution on Tuesday, and I encourage Wisconsinites to reach out to their legislators to support this effort.”
Republicans control the Senate 20-12 and the Assembly 60-38.
Lawmakers have been inconsistent about wearing masks at the Statehouse this year. Democrats have generally worn them at all times, even when testifying during hearings or speaking during debates, whereas most Republicans have removed masks while speaking or gone without them altogether.
The resolution argues that Evers didn’t have the authority to issue his latest public health emergency because the Legislature didn’t renew the original one that was issued when the pandemic began. State law allows governors to declare public health emergencies that last 60 days but can be extended by the Legislature.
Evers argues that each emergency order he has issued was new and was meant to address ongoing challenges posed by the pandemic.
His mask order is also being challenged in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which heard arguments in the case in November but has yet to issue a ruling.
The move comes as deaths from COVID-19 are spiking in Wisconsin despite new cases being at their lowest level in four months, albeit much higher than they were last summer. Republicans have also introduced a series of bills to take more control over the response to the pandemic, including requiring that everyone in the state be eligible for the vaccine in mid-March regardless of whether supply can meet demand.
To date, 5,607 people have died from COVID-19 in Wisconsin and more than 528,000 have tested positive, according to the state Department of Health Services.