MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued a new statewide mask order on Thursday, an hour after the Republican-controlled Legislature voted to repeal his previous mandate saying he didn't have authority to make such a decree.
The Democratic governor said in a video message that his priority is keeping people safe and that wearing a mask is the most basic way to do that.
"If the Legislature keeps playing politics and we don't keep wearing masks, we're going to see more preventable deaths, and it's going to take even longer to get our state and our economy back on track," Evers said.
The Assembly vote to repeal the mask order came a week after the Senate voted to kill the mandate. Republicans, who control both chambers, argued that Evers exceeded his authority by repeatedly extending the mask mandate without legislative approval. The repeal hadn't even taken effect before Evers issued a new one.
Republican leaders did not immediately return messages for comment on Evers' new order.
Dr. Bud Chumbley, head of the Wisconsin Medical Society, blasted the Assembly's vote to repeal, saying it "sends the wrong message at the wrong time."
"Instead, we need all of our policy leaders to unify behind the same message: wear a mask to protect yourself and others, prevent additional deaths and restore our economy," he said in a statement.
The Medical Society was one of nearly 60 organizations representing businesses, health care workers, hospitals, firefighters, pharmacists, churches, schools and more that opposed the repeal.
The Assembly voted 52-42 to repeal the mandate, with seven Republicans joining all Democrats in opposition.
The Supreme Court could end the legislative back and forth with a ruling in a pending case that says Evers must secure lawmakers' approval every 60 days. The court could also say he doesn't need approval, thus forcing the Legislature to repeal every order Evers issues with which Republicans disagree.
Health experts say masks may be the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has killed nearly 6,000 Wisconsinites, and that a repeal risks creating confusion and sending the wrong message about the importance of masks.
"We should be wearing masks," said Democratic state Rep. Robyn Vining. "Masks save lives."
Republicans say the issue isn't about masks, but whether Evers can legally issue multiple emergency health orders during the pandemic. The Legislature argues he can't, and must secure their approval every 60 days. Evers contends the changing nature of the pandemic allowed him to issue multiple orders and mask mandates.
"I know you want to make it about masks. It's not," said Republican Majority Leader Jim Steineke. "It's about the rule of law."
The coronavirus has ebbed in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the U.S., but health experts have warned of a continuing danger, including the emergence of new and more contagious variants. All of Wisconsin's neighboring states have some form of mask mandate, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.
The repeal is the latest defeat for Evers, who has struggled to combat the pandemic. Republican lawmakers last year persuaded the state Supreme Court to scrap his stay-at-home order and a state appeals court halted limits he had placed on indoor gatherings.
Prior to Thursday's vote, Assembly Republicans sent Evers a letter saying they would support a more limited mask mandate that applies to places "susceptible to transmission of the virus." Republicans said that includes health care facilities, nursing homes, mass transit, state government buildings, assisted living facilities, public schools, universities and prisons.
Republicans called on Evers to submit a rule proposal to enact such a mandate, promising such a request would be "reviewed fairly and judiciously."
The Assembly also passed a bill that contains a provision designed to ensure the state doesn't lose about $50 million a month that pays for food stamp benefits for roughly 243,000 low-income people in the state. Federal law requires there to be an emergency health order in place to receive the money. The Senate planned to meet Friday to approve the bill, sending it to Evers.
Evers has not said whether he will sign the bill. It would also prohibit the closure of churches during the pandemic and bar employers from requiring workers to get vaccinated for the disease. It also gives the Legislature control of how federal money for fighting the virus is spent.
Evers had supported a previous, more limited version of the bill.
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