Gov. Tony Evers, seen last month surveying damage to Capitol grounds, issued a public health emergency Thursday and statewide mask mandate. (Photo © Andy Manis)
Gov. Tony Evers, seen last month surveying damage to Capitol grounds, issued a public health emergency Thursday and statewide mask mandate. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Statewide mask ordinance begins Saturday.

Gov. Tony Evers issued a mandatory statewide face mask order Thursday and declared a public health emergency as coronavirus cases continue to surge across Wisconsin and as school officials struggle with how to resume classes safely this fall. 

“I know there are those who have demanded a piecemeal approach. But we tried their way and folks, it’s not working,” said Evers in reference to the GOP-controlled Legislature successfully suing to end the safer-at-home order in May. “Statewide efforts to combat this virus have worked before and that’s what we are announcing here today.” 

The mask order begins Saturday and expires in 60 days on Sept. 28, unless action is taken to end it sooner. The order will require all residents age 5 and older to wear masks indoors when they are not in their own homes. The penalty for violating the order is a civil forfeiture of up to $200. Wisconsin is the 34th state to enact a statewide mask mandate, according to Masks4All.co

“What we know to be true is this virus does not care about any town, city or county boundary,” Evers said. “It doesn’t care if you live in the Dodge County or Fond du Lac County side of Waupun. It doesn’t care if you are perfectly healthy or young, and it doesn’t care if you are a Republican or a Democrat.” 

Evers said declaring a second public health emergency since March was necessary because of the surge in cases and the community spread of the virus throughout 61 of the state’s 72 counties, particularly since the safer-at-home order ended May 12.

Consider that from March 8 through May 13, the state reported 10,092 positive coronavirus cases, according to state Department of Health Services data. 

With no statewide order then in place, the state saw its number of new coronavirus cases quadruple from May 14 until Thursday, adding 41,206 new cases. As of Thursday, the state had 52,108 positive cases and more than 900 deaths. 

The state is currently averaging nearly 870 new cases per day, according to the DHS.

“Wisconsin is in a much more serious situation than we were a month ago or even when the governor declared a public health emergency in March,” said Andrea Palm, secretary-designee of the state Department of Health Services. “We know Wisconsin is seeing signs of community spread, which means COVID-19 is widespread enough that just interacting in the community is enough to contract the virus.”

Evers previously said he doubted he would issue a mandatory mask order, noting reluctance to do so after the state Supreme Court’s May ruling. 

The fact the mask order takes effect the same day Jill Karofsky is sworn in as the newest justice to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, replacing conservative Justice Dan Kelly, was not lost on Republican leaders. 

In the court’s 4-3 vote in favor of lifting the safer-at-home order, Kelly sided with the conservative justices. 

“It’s transparent and blatantly political that his order doesn’t take effect until his handpicked Supreme Court justice takes office,” said Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, in a statement

Evers responded to the accusation by saying, “It doesn’t have everything to do with it. The virus is the issue not Jill Karofsky.”

Ryan Nilsestuen, the governor’s chief legal counsel, cautioned against thinking of the court as a political body. He cited two recent examples of arguably conservative justices siding with the liberal members of the court.

For example, conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn opposed lifting Evers’ Safer-at-Home measure on the grounds that Legislative Republicans had no legal standing to bring the suit against the statewide order, and Justice Kelly authored the opinion knocking down the guidance document requirements in the lame-duck lawsuit. 

“While I think it is a tempting thing to think certain justices will automatically line up in certain ways, we want to make sure we are doing the best thing possible based on the law, based on the facts, and we hope the justices agree with us no matter what their perceived inclinations may be,” Nilsestuen told reporters Thursday. 

Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, is advocating that rather than fight Evers in court, lawmakers return to session to override the mask mandate. 

Lawmakers have come under criticism in recent days for not convening to take action on any issues in more than 100 days

“I am calling on Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald to immediately call the Legislature back into session to pass a joint resolution ending Gov. Evers’ new illegal and unnecessary emergency declaration,” said Nass. “The Legislature is empowered to end any emergency declaration issued by a governor through the simple passage of a joint resolution that doesn’t require the governor’s approval.” 

Evers responded to Nass’ suggestion by saying Republicans could have come back at any point. 

“I think that is a sad commentary for all of us. Obviously he doesn’t believe that masks matter and that’s fine. He can be one of those people that flaunt the order,” Evers said.  “But to come in and have the Republicans essentially say we don’t believe in science is pretty risky business. It’s pretty risky political business and it is real risky health business.” 

Vos gave no indication he would be calling a special session. Instead, he seemed to suggest that rather than lawmakers filing a legal suit, a third party might be more inclined to do so. 

“It’s disappointing that yet again Gov. Evers has chosen to not communicate or work with the legislature,” Vos said in a statement. “There are certainly constitutional questions here; I would expect legal challenges from citizen groups.”

Julian Emerson and Jonathon Sadowski contributed to this report.