Gov. Evers issues new statewide mask order after GOP repeal

Gov. Tony Evers issued a new statewide health emergency and mask mandate on Thursday, Feb. 4 just an hour after the Republican-controlled Assembly voted to repeal his previous mandate, saying he didn't have authority to make such a decree.

The Democratic governor said in a video message (below) that his priority is keeping people safe.

"Wearing a mask is the most basic thing we can do to keep each other safe," Evers said. "If the Legislature keeps playing politics and we don’t keep wearing masks, we’re going to see more preventable deaths, and it’s going to take even longer to get our state and our economy back on track."

The Assembly voted 52 to 42 to repeal the health emergency and mask order. It came a week after the Senate voted to kill the health orders.

Wisconsin state law allows the governor to issue an emergency order for 60 days -- needing legislative approval to extend. Gov. Evers has issued multiple 60-day health emergencies -- and since the summer, has used the emergencies to issue mask mandates. 

"We are here today, again, not to talk about masks," said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington). "We are here talking about the unlawful declaration that Governor Evers has been repeatedly declaring."

But Democrats say the governor is only responding to an evolving pandemic. 

"There is nothing redemptive about this resolution. You pass this, you don’t save a single life, you don’t help our healthcare heroes, you don’t protect frontline workers," said State Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa).

All Democrats present as well as seven Republicans voted to save the health emergency and mask mandate.

Assembly Republicans say they would support a limited mask mandate in places like hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. They ask the governor to go through the usual rule-making process that includes legislative approval.

"But the idea that we are going to say that someone has to wear a mask inside a private business, if the private business doesn’t want to require it, I don't support it," Vos said.

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That Assembly proposal to work with the governor is not sitting well with the senator who chairs the committee that would oversee the rule. State Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) said he does not support a mask mandate that could lead to people being fined or arrested.

Wisconsin Supreme Court decision pending

The Supreme Court could end the legislative back-and-forth with a ruling in a pending case challenging Evers for issuing multiple health emergencies during the same pandemic. The court could also say he doesn’t need legislative approval, thus forcing the Legislature to repeal every order Evers issues with which Republicans disagree.

Complete text of Gov. Evers' video statement

You know, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve promised you three things: 

The first, that I would never play politics with your health. 

The second, that I would trust and follow science and public health experts to guide our decision-making. 

And finally, that I would never stop doing everything in my power to keep Wisconsinites healthy and safe. 

Well, every step of the way, our statewide strategies to contain this virus and prevent the spread have been met with lawsuits, political rhetoric, and obstruction. 

Unfortunately, that happened again today when Republicans in the Legislature came in to vote down our state’s public health emergency and end requiring face coverings in public places. 

And, in so doing, they also put at risk nearly $50 million a month in federal funds that will go toward helping hundreds of thousands of our most vulnerable Wisconsinites have access to food assistance during this pandemic. Folks, that is wrong. 

Here’s the truth: we know that wearing face coverings can save lives and prevent death; we know it’s supported by science and the CDC; and we know it’s supported by more than 40 statewide organizations and the 72% of Wisconsinites who agree face coverings should be worn in public places. 

And most importantly, we know that as we work to get shots in arms as quickly as we have vaccines available, no amount of vaccine in the world could bring back the lives we stand to lose if we have no statewide mitigation strategy in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin. 

So, here’s the bottom line: I haven’t broken those promises I made to you during this pandemic, and I won’t start today. 

That’s why today we will be issuing a new public health emergency and order requiring face coverings in public places. 

Our fight against this virus isn’t over--it’s not going away, especially as we see mutations of this virus in our state and others.  

Wearing a mask is the most basic thing we can do to keep each other safe. If the Legislature keeps playing politics and we don’t keep wearing masks, we're going to see more preventable deaths, and it’s going to take even longer to get our state and our economy back on track. 

We’re going to keep putting people first, we’re going to keep listening to the science, and we’re going to keep working to save lives so we can get through this pandemic together. 

Thank you.

Associated Press contributed to this report.