Evers extends mask mandate
Gov. Tony Evers announces the 60-day extension of the statewide mask mandate Wednesday. (Image provided)

Wisconsin surpassed 100,000 confirmed coronavirus cases over the weekend. Young adults driving most recent surge.

Gov. Tony Evers, citing uninhibited coronavirus spread on college campuses, on Tuesday issued a new emergency declaration and accompanying order that extends the statewide mask mandate through Nov. 21. The original mask mandate was set to expire Monday.

The order came after a week of unprecedented spread of the virus in Wisconsin as new cases skyrocketed, surpassing 2,000 new infections for three straight days and leading to a new record amount of COVID-19 patients requiring hospital care. 

The state Department of Health Services reported Tuesday an additional 1,672 positive COVID-19 cases, the fourth-highest daily number since tracking began on March 8. The average daily ratio of positive tests to total tests processed over the past seven days is up to a record 16.7%, far exceeding the 5% ratio experts say indicates a virus being contained.

Almost all of the substantial growth has been among the 18-24 age range, according to Department of Health Services data. 

“We continue to learn more about this virus, but what we do know is that we are facing a new and dangerous phase of the COVID-19 pandemic here in Wisconsin,” Evers said in a statement announcing the new orders. “We are seeing an alarming increase in cases across our state, especially on campus.”

Last week, The New York Times reported that seven of the top 20 metro areas with the fastest increase in new COVID-19 cases per capita are in college towns in Wisconsin. They include: La Crosse, which ranked second; Whitewater eighth, followed by Platteville in ninth, Madison in 10th, Green Bay in 15th, Eau Claire in 16th, and Oshkosh in 19th. 

As of Tuesday, five Wisconsin metropolitan areas remained in the New York Times’ top 20: Appleton at seventh; Platteville at ninth; Stevens Point at 11th; Oshkosh-Neenah at 15th; and Green Bay at 20th.

“The current surge among young people is concerning, but it is important to remember that this increase in cases is not confined to college campuses,” said Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm in a statement. “Students come to these campuses from across the state, and we worry about the effect their return from an area with a high infection rate could have on their home communities. That is why it is imperative we take action to curb transmission now—to protect residents of Wisconsin in every corner of the state.”

A dashboard maintained by the Wisconsin Hospital Association shows 474 in-patient admissions due to COVID-19 complications. The previous record number of hospitalizations was 446 on April 9 in the early weeks of the pandemic’s arrival in Wisconsin. 

Evers’ office, in the announcement of the new order, said Wisconsin has “unprecedented, near-exponential growth of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dr. Jeff Pothof, UW Health’s chief quality officer, told UpNorthNews last week that extending and enforcing the mask mandate would be one of the best ways to prevent another statewide shutdown. 

Despite masks’ proven effectiveness at preventing COVID-19 transmission, they have become politically controversial. Without the new emergency declaration, Evers would have had to rely on the Legislature to extend the mask mandate because governors under state law can only issue 60-day emergency orders. The Republican-led Legislature was almost certain to let the original mandate expire, even with the virus running rampant. 

“We need to remember that most respiratory viruses see their peak activity in Wisconsin between late fall and early spring,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Wisconsin’s chief medical officer and the state epidemiologist for communicable diseases, in a statement. “We need to do everything we can now to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prepare for the winter. That is why we need to continue wearing masks and practicing physical distancing.”

Republican leadership in the Legislature sharply condemned Evers’ extension but did not say they would convene the Assembly or Senate to vote to end the order prematurely.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) in a statement called Evers “Wisconsin’s lawless governor” and called the extension “obviously illegal.” However, Vos appeared to wash the Assembly’s hands of striking the order down, apparently leaving that task to the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s conservative majority.

“There is already a court challenge and undoubtedly, there will be more,” Vos said. “No one branch of government can rule outside the letter of the law and go unchecked, even during a pandemic.”

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), who in July said Senate Republicans “stand ready” to end Evers’ first mask order, backpedaled Tuesday, saying the mask order’s extension is “almost assuredly headed for litigation” but making no mention of plans to convene the Senate.

“The Wisconsin Supreme Court made it clear that if Governor Evers wishes to continue to impose sanctions, mandates, and restrictions on the citizens of this state, he must work with the legislature to do so,” Fitzgerald said, referencing the May Supreme Court decision to end the governor’s stay-home order. “That has not happened.”

Vos and Fitzgerald have not called the Assembly or Senate into session in 160 days.

Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which sued Evers over the first mask mandate, signaled a likely challenge to the mandate’s extension just minutes after Evers issued it.

“Letting this gross abuse of power stand is not an option,” Esenberg said in a statement tweeted by WILL.

There have now been 104,170 confirmed coronavirus cases and 1,251 deaths from the virus in Wisconsin, according to DHS data, including seven deaths reported Tuesday. There are already numerous coronavirus infections at schools across Wisconsin, including K-12 schools, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel database.

Some school districts and colleges around the state that opened for in-person classes, including two Oshkosh high schools, UW-La Crosse, and UW-Madison, are already turning virtual due to coronavirus outbreaks.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include comments from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) as well as the most recent hospitalization statistics.