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Gov. Evers issues statewide mask mandate

MADISON (WKOW) -- Gov. Tony Evers has declared a public health emergency and issued a statewide mask requirement Thursday in response to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

The order is effective at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 1, and will expire on Sept. 28.

"We’ve said all along that we’re going to let science and public health experts be our guide in responding to this pandemic, and we know that masks and face coverings will save lives," Evers said. "While I know emotions are high when it comes to wearing face coverings in public, my job as governor is to put people first and to do what's best for the people of our state, so that's what I am going to do."

The governor's announcement comes after he continued to say for weeks he didn't think he had the legal authority to do so. Now he's changing his mind and believes his order will be upheld ever after the State Supreme Court struck down his "safer at home" order in May.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos raised questions whether or not the order is constitutional but said he won't be suing the governor.

 “I understand the necessity of doing all that we can to control the spread of COVID-19. We all know it’s serious," Vos said in a statement. "There are certainly constitutional questions here; I would expect legal challenges from citizen groups.”

Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) called on Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald to immediately call the Legislature back into session to pass a joint resolution ending Evers’ emergency declaration.

"Governor Evers actions today are nothing more than a political stunt to create a partisan fight with the Legislature," Nass said in a statement. "This is not about improving public health. Today’s emergency declaration is all about the November election and the weak performance of Democrats in this state."

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzerald said he will check in with his caucus to see if there is support to vote down the order.

“Masks are fine, but we don’t need statewide mandates telling us what to do," Fitzgerald said in a statement.

"Many people are wearing masks already. Municipalities have been making the decisions themselves on what best fits their regions. I still do not support mandating mask wearing statewide."

The mask order applies to everyone in the state 5-years-old and older while inside buildings other than private residences. Masks can be removed in several situations, including while sleeping, eating and drinking. Masks can also be removed when required by state and federal law.

People with medical condition that prevent the wearing masks are one of several groups exempted from the order.

Violating the order can result in a fine not to exceed $200.

Evers declared the state of emergency in an executive order issued Thursday which cited a "drastic rise in COVID-19 cases throughout the state" as reasoning for the move.

Emergency Order #1, which institutes the face mask requirement, says it supersedes all local mask orders. However, local governments can issue orders more restrictive than the governor's.

Some are also questioning the timing of the order as it goes into effect the same day the State Supreme court will swear in Justice Jill Karofsky and the courts conservative majority will shift 4-3.

Karofsky's addition to the court could change how these types of lawsuits are ruled. Earlier this year Justice Brain Hagedorn sided with liberal on the court when he was in favor of keeping the governors "safer at home" order in place.

Dane County's mask mandate instituted July 13 remains in effect "until further notice."

Earlier this week, thousands of people signed a petition urging state leaders to implement a statewide mask mandate as the total number of positive cases of COVID-19 topped 50,000.

With COVID-19 not going away any time soon, the pressure to implement a statewide mask order was increasing as states led by both Republican and Democratic governors have enacted them. 

About 30 states now have mask requirements including Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota. A handful of local governments are also issuing them including Dane County, Glendale, Green Bay, Milwaukee, Racine, Shorewood, Superior, Whitefish Bay and Whitewater.

Gov. Tony Evers has been telling people to wear a mask since the beginning of the pandemic but said for weeks the State Supreme Court ruling that ended the state's "safer at home" order has stopped him from issuing a statewide mandate.

"The Supreme Court left us in a very messy situation and it created chaos,” Evers said in a media briefing last week. “But frankly, people can put on a mask right now, there is nothing preventing you from doing it."