Gov. Tony Evers signaled Tuesday he might try to require Wisconsin residents to wear face masks to address a new surge of coronavirus cases — after previously taking the position he didn’t have the authority to do so.
Evers, who wore a face mask during a briefing with reporters, said he’s considering a mask mandate but said it’s unclear whether it would stick after a state Supreme Court ruling in May that tossed out much of his stay-at-home order and put his authority to issue statewide orders in question.
The Democratic governor made his comments after Dane County officials issued an order Tuesday requiring face coverings in all indoor settings except at home and in restaurants, and as a Milwaukee alderwoman proposed a city mask ordinance that would be one of the strictest in the nation if enacted.
Evers has taken the position until now that the ruling stripped him of the authority to issue such statewide orders, but some legal experts don’t agree. On Tuesday, he said an unnamed business owner told him to try even if Republicans sue.
“We really don’t know if I have the authority to do that,” Evers told reporters, noting such a mandate could be “unlikely” after the Supreme Court ruling made the task of responding to the virus outbreak more complicated.
Later in the briefing, Evers also said he was “looking at all options” and said a “business leader” called him recently asking him to mandate masks to ensure outbreaks don’t get out of hand and force more business closures.
“I talked to him about the possibilities of it being challenged in court by the Republicans, which is probably 100%, and our chances of losing in the Supreme Court which are probably very close to 100%, and he said ‘Do it anyway,’ ” Evers said.
Republican legislative leaders sued Evers earlier this year over his stay-at-home order which closed schools, businesses, bars and restaurants for two months.
The conservative-controlled state Supreme Court in May issued a ruling in the case, tossing out the order with the exception of its limits on schools.
But the court’s conservative majority tightens to 4-3 in August with the addition of liberal justice Jill Karfosky. Conservative justice Brian Hagedorn sided with the liberal minority in the May ruling tossing out the governor’s order.
That means a potential lawsuit over similar statewide orders may be unsuccessful once Karofsky joins the court.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said last month he does not support mask mandates, but a spokesman did not answer whether he would support a lawsuit challenging an order requiring them.
A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos also did not respond.
Until Dane County implemented its mask requirements on Tuesday, Wisconsin was in a minority of states that did not have any orders requiring face coverings.
In June, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered residents there to wear masks indoors and in settings that put people at a higher risk of contracting the virus, like health care facilities and using public transportation.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have issued face mask mandates and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz requires employees in certain positions wear masks. …
The spread of the virus among Wisconsin’s younger residents pushed Dane County officials to pull back their plans to gradually reopen businesses and allow larger gatherings since shutting down most of the county in March.
On Tuesday, the county’s health officials went a step further and required everyone over the age of 5 to wear a mask when indoors except at home or at a restaurant, which are only allowed to cater to 25% of their capacity.
Milwaukee city leaders are working on an ordinance to require face coverings after Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic introduced a proposal that would require city residents to wear masks when they are in public — including when they are indoors and outside if they are in a public place and within 30 feet of another person who is not living with them.
The mandate would apply to anyone who is 2 years old or older.
The 30-foot requirement is modeled after San Francisco, Dimitrijevic said. That city’s face mask requirement includes, “walking or running outside and you see someone within 30 feet (about the length of a Muni bus).”
The plan would require Milwaukee businesses to enforce the mask requirement or risk being shut down by the Health Department.
If implemented, it would be among the stricter mask ordinances in the country.
But Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and city Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik said they were working with Dimitrijevic and others to update the proposal.
“We want to make sure it withstands a legal challenge if there is one,” he said. “It’s a work in progress. It’s not done yet.”
Dimitrijevic said the proposal aims to help stop the recent surge of coronavirus cases.
“I don’t think anyone can ignore that data show we’re heading in the wrong direction,” she told the Journal Sentinel.
Dimitrijevic added that enforcement is focused on indoor public places, while rules for outdoor areas allow for “self-enforcement” in an effort to keep people from passing too close to each other.
“You’re being the judge of it,” she said.
Most of the mask mandates around the country require wearing masks while indoors in public places or when outdoors in public places and unable to maintain a 6-foot distance.
While some mask ordinances provide detailed guidelines about when a mask should be worn, others are much more vague.
Some places are willing to enforce their mandates with fines, including Texas and Phoenix, while other places like New York state, Illinois, Los Angeles and San Jose are not imposing fines for violating their mandates.
None of the 10 largest cities had a rule requiring people to wear face coverings outdoors whenever they are within 30 feet of someone who is not a member of your family or household.