State Senate chambers at the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)
State Senate chambers at the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)

Nearly two dozen organizations ask legislators not to rescind face mask requirements. Senate does it anyway, Assembly is next.

State Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) spoke on the Senate floor about her family members, including cousins, aunts and more, with pre-existing conditions who are frontline healthcare workers in direct need of the kind of protection that comes from people around them wearing face masks during a pandemic. 

“All of these individuals are on the front lines risking their lives every single day to go to work to care for the citizens here in Wisconsin to make sure that our community is safe,” Johnson said. “They risk their lives with the pre-existing conditions every single day to do their part to help save lives. And the only in our arsenal to protect them are masks.”

So she wondered why her Republican colleagues were pushing through Joint Resolution 3, which would revoke the state’s emergency declaration and the statewide mask rules issued by Gov. Tony Evers earlier this month, especially since mask wearing is one of the best, most inexpensive tools to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“We have to understand that your right to choose should not prevent my ability to live, to thrive, to be here to care for my kids to see my grandkids,” Johnson said. “We all have to do our part.”

All of the 23 organizations that gave their response to Senate Joint Resolution 3 all disapproved, including multiple Wisconsin healthcare providers as well as advocates for the elderly, people with disabilities, and children. The Wisconsin Council of Churches simply commented, “The Governor’s mask mandate saves lives. Ending it will cost lives.”

At a press conference held by Democrats before the Senate and Assembly floor session on Tuesday, Jerry Briggart, a Milwaukee firefighter and member of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin, said that the proposed change is not “essential worker centered.”

“We don’t understand any reason why a proper face covering would ever be a question,” Briggart said. “This seems like [the pandemic is] starting all over again. I don’t understand, for the good and welfare of the EMS [emergency medical services] and firefighters who have to take these people into their ambulances and the hospitals, why they would want to make this change.”

Sen Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), who put forward the bill argued that, “any death is a tragedy, whether it’s from COVID or cancer,” and that, “this is not about face masks.”

“This is not about whether face masks are good or bad,” Nass said. “This is about [Gov. Evers] repeatedly issuing emergency orders contrary to what the law allows. It’s about the rule of law.”

The Republican majority approved the bill with two dissenters, Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay) and Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) who spoke about how revoking the mask mandate would probably delay reopening schools. 

Back to square one

On another matter, Assembly Republicans rejected a compromise relief measure agreed to by Senate Republicans and Evers. Instead, they amended the COVID-19 relief bill  to put back controversial provisions that had been removed by the Senate, such as prohibiting vaccine requirements from either employers or public health officials, capacity limits, or the closure of houses of worship due to safety concerns. 

They also added a provision that would require legislative oversight over the use of federal COVID-19 funds, a provision sure to draw an Evers veto and force the entire relief package to start from scratch. The Legislature has not approved coronavirus aid since April 15, 2020. 

At a press conference before the floor session, Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) said Democrats had not seen the amendments Republicans planned to add to the bill, even though it was less than an hour before the session was scheduled to start. Hintz advocated for passing the Senate’s clean compromise bill, without, “pandering to freedom or obstructing Gov. Evers or playing political games.”

“Any action today to amend or modify is playing games further at a time when state government needs to do everything possible to support our state,” Hintz said. “At a time when there’s new strains of virus that are 50 to 75% more contagious, this is not the time to be moving backwards. Leaders should lead. We should lead the sacrifice and model behavior.”

Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) attempted to downplay the amendments on the Assembly floor, saying they are “not partisan.” The vote suggested otherwise, as it was split along party lines.