Area legislator recovering from COVID-19 says it will only help the virus bounce back in a county with one of the state’s highest death tolls

To Racine County’s Republican Sheriff Christopher Schmaling the rule of law is allegedly straightforward.

“The decision to enforce laws cannot be made based on heart-felt opinions, political views and/or outright community grandstanding,” he told the Racine Journal Times last July when asked about Immigrations and Customs Enforcement deporting people in Racine.

But less than a year later, in the midst of a pandemic that has claimed 10 lives in Racine County, Schmaling has decided to join other Republicans to openly defy Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-home order that has successfully reduced the spread of the deadly coronavirus. His announcement came a day after Evers extended the order through May 26 and as conservatives and pro-gun political operatives across the country, encouraged by President Donald Trump, are organizing protests against their states’ stay-home orders.

Schmaling, a sheriff overseeing a county of 200,000 residents that has 174 confirmed coronavirus cases, claimed the stay-home order includes “overreaching measures” that “interfere in the freedoms granted to all of us by our Constitution.” He said the Racine County Sheriff’s Office will no longer enforce the order and will “leave the enforcement of public health orders to the health department experts.”

A month ago, Schmaling’s tone was the opposite.

“The order has not suspended the United States Constitution or the Constitution of the State of Wisconsin,” the sheriff said in a video published March 25 in which he explains the order. 

He continued, “There is no doubt our rights are being restricted to some degree on the recommendation of medical health professionals for the greater good of all so that others may stay healthy and live.”

He finished the video asking residents for “patience, understanding, cooperation, and your sincere compliance.”

Schmaling did not respond to questions about what changed his stance.

Dottie Kay-Bowersox, the public health director for the City of Racine, criticized the sheriff in a statement.

“It is concerning and alarming that Sheriff Schmaling would be unsupportive and defiant of the extended ‘Safer at Home’ order,” she said. “The actions come in response to the best available science and data from the CDC and local public health officials…. Undermining this effort adds confusion to the public which imposes unnecessary risk to many residents.”

Shawano County Sheriff Adam Bieber made a similar statement to Schmaling’s, but received far less attention. When asked during a call with reporters on Monday, Evers did not directly address the sheriffs’ defiance. He opted to speak more broadly about all Wisconsinites.

“The idea that there’s this mass group of people that need to be arrested, that’s just not Wisconsin,” Evers said. “Most people get it.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican who represents a vast swath of Racine County, said state Republicans are preparing a legal challenge to Evers’ extension of the stay-home order. State Sen. David Craig, R-Big Bend, whose district partially overlaps with Vos’ Assembly district, called for the firing of Andrea Palm, secretary-designee of the state Department of Health Services.

Nearly a thousand conservatives protested the extension Saturday in the affluent Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield. Some wielded Gadsden “don’t tread on me” flags, and at least one person had a Confederate flag. More than 3,000 have marked themselves as “going” to a “Freedom Rally” planned for Friday afternoon in Madison.

None of this is sitting well with a legislator from a nearby district who fought COVID-19.

“They can’t see that their actions, what they’re asking for, actually helps the virus spread back to their own communities,” said David Bowen, a Democratic state representative from Milwaukee who had coronavirus but recovered. “We really are all in this together. Milwaukee doesn’t gain if other places around the state end up suffering from the virus.”

Milwaukee County leads the state by a wide margin in both cases and deaths. More than 2,200 have the virus in the county and 127 have died as of Monday afternoon, according to the Milwaukee County Health Department.

The pandemic has killed 230 Wisconsinites and infected 4,499 overall, according to the latest DHS figures. Nationally, more than 775,000 are infected and 40,000 Americans have died, according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University.