Republican state Assembly representatives speak without protective face masks during floor debate on a bill related to COVID-19 on Jan. 7Republican state Assembly representatives speak without protective face masks during floor debate on a bill related to COVID-19 on Jan. 7Republican state Assembly representatives speak without protective face masks during floor debate on a bill related to COVID-19 on Jan. 7Republican state Assembly representatives speak without protective face masks during floor debate on a bill related to COVID-19 on Jan. 7Republican state Assembly representatives speak without protective face masks during floor debate on a bill related to COVID-19 on Jan. 7
In these images from the WisconsinEye video feed, Republican state Assembly representatives speak without protective face masks during floor debate on a bill related to COVID-19 on Jan. 7, 2021.

After months of inaction, the GOP’s return has spread disingenuousness, misinformation, and likely a dangerous virus.

When Assembly Republicans were inactive for nine months during a global pandemic, at least there were some basic COVID-19 safeguards in place at the state Capitol: The building was closed to the general public, employees could work from home, and legislators were allowed to participate in hearings virtually, safely. 

But last month, Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) stated that he expected legislators to attend committee hearings in-person, despite several instances of Republicans attending or speaking unmasked, at-odds with basic safeguards against spreading the coronavirus and a waste of the investment made in technological improvements to enhance online meetings.

As a last-minute effort to change Vos’s mind, Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) released a letter to Vos asking that members, their staff, and support agencies still be allowed to work and participate virtually. Refusing to do so, Hintz said, would make, “the State Capitol one of the most unnecessarily risky places to work.”

But the push for risky behavior has continued, even as the number of COVID-19 deaths in Wisconsin surpassed 5,000 last week. Instead of acknowledging their colleagues’ legitimate concerns about spreading the virus, Assembly Republicans have doubled-down, creating a hostile work environment and using Democrats’ physical absence from events to advance their agenda. 

Earlier: Senate Plans to Pass a COVID-19 Bill, Just Not the One Rushed Through the Assembly

On Dec. 23, Rep. Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva), the Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore, sent an email to all members, laying out the procedure for inauguration day which was to be held in-person, somewhat socially distanced, and with mask-wearing “strongly advised.” Assembly Democrats decided to hold their own inauguration ceremony virtually one week early. 

Typically, politics and partisanship is set aside during an inauguration and once everyone is sworn in and the officers and committees acknowledged, everyone goes home. But without any Democrats in attendance the Assembly passed two resolutions: one directing the Department of Administration to reopen the Capitol building to the public and the other pushing misinformation about the integrity of the Nov. 3 election, the kind of language that fueled baseless anger that erupted into a riot at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6.

Later, at the end of a Health Committee hearing on Assembly Republicans’ first COVID-19 bill, chair Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) said he was, “disappointed that not one of our Democrat [sic] colleagues spent not even a minute in this room giving the respect to the people who have come here to testify on this bill.”

“Now I recognize that throughout the course of the day we all have things to do and we’re very busy,” Sanfelippo said. “But there’s not anything, any other committee hearings going on today and there’s nothing that should supersede the importance of this COVID legislation today.”

Sanfelippo’s comments were disingenuous at best, as demonstrated by the presence of Rep. Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg) who called into the meeting—as Sanfelippo himself confirmed at the start of the proceedings—because of his chronic health conditions, including a lung condition that could make him vulnerable to COVID-19. Anderson said that he is proof that making similar accommodations for his colleagues would be, “simple and straightforward.”

“Instead, Republicans are forcing legislators and those testifying to put their health and the health of their loved ones at risk for no damn reason other than to flex their political muscle over their Democratic colleagues,” Anderson stated in an email. “I hope the power trip is worth it if they end up being responsible for the continued spread of the disease. A true irony given the legislation before the committee today.”

Rep. Sara Rodriguez (D-Brookfield), an epidemiologist said she and her colleagues wanted to participate in the meeting but only under conditions that were safe. Sanfelippo and his Republican colleagues spoke without masks throughout the hearing. 

“Our request to participate safely in a virtual setting was denied so I made the decision to watch the hearing on Wisconsin Eye in my office,” Rodriguez stated. “Unfortunately, there were several legislators who chose to ignore [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines, health care professionals and science by refusing to wear masks and social distance.”

Related: Evers Says Gerrymandering Allowed GOP to Abandon Wisconsin in the Depths of a Pandemic

During the Assembly’s floor session last week, Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc) went on at length about his Democratic colleagues because he claimed their inattendance at the inauguration was, “disrespectful.”

“We have people that are going out each and every day to work on our behalf. You’re sending the National Guard out there every day, [Kurtz’s wife, a nurse anesthetist] is going out every day, I have employees who go to nursing homes every day,” Kurtz said. “And you could not come Monday for a ceremony that this state has done for years. That bothered me.”

What Kurtz failed to acknowledge is that the National Guard, nurses and long-term care workers are required to wear masks while on the job. Assembly Democrats asked that if they couldn’t participate virtually, that at least legislators be required to wear a mask.

None of the Republicans who spoke about the COVID-19 bill that day wore one, including Kurtz, who at one point was shouting, spreading water droplets even further than with normal speech. The Democratic members in attendance followed proper safeguards, wearing eye protection and, of course, masks.