MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The Wisconsin Assembly plans to vote Thursday on ending the state’s mask mandate issued by Gov. Tony Evers, a move that will send the question back to the state Senate, which could vote later this month to repeal the order.
Meanwhile, with a possible repeal of the state’s mask order imminent, cities across the state moved this week to ensure they would have local restrictions in place.
The back and forth in the Republican-controlled Legislature comes after the Senate voted last week to repeal the Democratic governor’s order, despite overwhelming criticism and opposition from more than 50 organizations from the health care industry and beyond. Not a single group registered in support. Opponents urged the Legislature to reconsider, noting that wearing masks is one of the most effective ways to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The Assembly was poised to pass the mask repeal last week, despite the concerns, but pulled back after learning the move would result in the state losing about $50 million a month in federal food stamp money. That money goes to states only if they have emergency health orders in place.
Republicans in the Legislature contend that Evers overstepped his authority by issuing multiple public health emergencies, rather than having the Legislature vote to extend it after 60 days. Repealing his health order would invalidate the mask mandate.
Evers could also issue a new order after the current one is repealed, forcing the Legislature to vote again to strike that down. And a case is pending in the Wisconsin Supreme Court on whether Evers has the power to issue the emergency orders, which could resolve the issue and take it out of the Legislature’s hands.
Evers did not immediately return a message seeking comment Wednesday.
The Senate last week passed a bill containing a provision that Republican senators said would ensure that the governor could still issue emergency orders to access the federal money only, but not allow him to order that masks be worn.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Wednesday that the Senate’s proposed fix would not work as intended. An analysis from the Legislature’s nonpartisan attorneys said the Senate amendment doesn’t limit the powers of the governor as Republicans intended.
Vos said the Assembly would be proposing a new solution, but did not immediately make that public. The Assembly was scheduled to vote Thursday on approving the funding solution and repealing the mask order. The Senate, which isn’t scheduled to meet until Feb. 16, would have to vote to concur in order to end the mask requirement.
That means the state’s mask order will remain in effect at least until then, unless the Wisconsin Supreme Court strikes it down.
Wisconsin has had a statewide mask mandate since August. It is scheduled to run until March 20.
With the state order in jeopardy, cities this week moved to create new local orders or extend ones in place.
The Eau Claire City Council and Eau Claire County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved identical ordinances requiring face masks in businesses and public indoor settings if the statewide mandate is repealed. The Green Bay City Council on Tuesday voted to extend its existing local mask mandate through March 31. And the Superior City Council, which had a mask order last year, passed a mask ordinance Tuesday that would be in effect through the end of the month.
Mask mandates are already in place in Milwaukee, Dane County, Beloit, Racine and Wauwatosa.
The state’s seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases dropped again Wednesday to 1,270. That continues a decline that began in mid-November and puts new cases at its lowest average in five months. More than 545,000 people in Wisconsin have tested positive and 5,951 have died to date.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin continues to improve its vaccination rate compared to other states. It ranked 25th in the percentage of population that’s received at least one dose, at 7.9%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The national average was 8.2% as of Wednesday.
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