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As COVID-19 cases surge, Gov. Tony Evers doesn't rule out extending mask order, other actions

As COVID-19 cases surge, Gov. Tony Evers doesn't rule out extending mask order, other actions

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With positive cases of COVID-19 surging in Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday hinted at possible future statewide efforts to limit the spread of the disease, but added his options are limited.

Evers’ statewide mask order, which has been challenged in court, is slated to expire Sept. 28.

“We’re looking at every possible avenue to see if there’s a way to extend it,” Evers said on a call with reporters Tuesday. “We believe it’s an important piece of the puzzle to mitigate the transmission of this virus. We’re working on this every day seeing if we can come up with a solution.”

Evers also hinted at other possible avenues to pursue when the mask order expires, but did not elaborate on what they might entail.

Evers and Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm encouraged residents to remain vigilant, wear masks and take other public health precautions to limit the spread of the disease.

“We will continue to see increases in cases until folks decide to take this seriously,” Evers said.

As of Tuesday, COVID-19 has killed 1,220 Wisconsinites and infected more than 91,000 people across the state, according to DHS.

Positive cases have surged in recent weeks as students returned to campuses. September already has seen three days with record-setting numbers of new positive COVID-19 cases.

So far this month, Dane County has surpassed 150 daily positive COVID-19 cases nine times, according to preliminary data from DHS. Before September, the county only reached 150 positive cases in a single day once — near the end of July.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that six of the 20 metro areas across the U.S. seeing the fastest rise in new COVID-19 cases are Wisconsin cities, including five where UW campuses are located: La Crosse (3), Platteville (10), Whitewater (11), Madison (12), Beaver Dam (19) and Oshkosh (20).

UW-Madison on Monday began a two-week suspension of most in-person activities in an effort to mitigate a rapid increase in positive tests among students.

After saying multiple times that he could not implement a mask order, Evers in July declared a new public health emergency and a separate order requiring masks. Both orders are set to expire Sept. 28.

That public health emergency has been challenged in court by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. The lawsuit alleges state law forbids a governor from unilaterally extending a public health emergency or declaring multiple emergencies in response to the same crisis.

The Evers administration’s earlier stay-at-home order, issued by Palm, was struck down on procedural grounds, with the state Supreme Court saying the Legislature needed to have a say in any long-term COVID-19 regulations.

“Certainly our ability to act and react was limited by the Republicans and their allies on the Supreme Court back in May,” Evers said. “As a result of that, we’re severely limited as to what we can do.”

Evers said he has not reached out to GOP leaders recently on a COVID-19 response, but said Republicans, who control the Senate and Assembly, have “made it very clear in the past that they have no interest in pursuing any kind of restrictions in the state of Wisconsin.”

The state Legislature has met only once since the pandemic began to take up COVID-19-related legislation. That meeting took place back in April, with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers labeling the resulting package of bills “imperfect.”

Legislators on both sides of the aisle said in April that more would need to be done in the future to respond to the outbreak. However, the GOP-led Legislature has not formally convened in the more than 150 days since.

What’s more, Wisconsin’s latest tax collections report, released earlier this month, found that despite concerns that COVID-19 would drastically limit state tax revenue, collections came back slightly higher than the previous fiscal year and only 0.6% lower than January projections.

Lawmakers earlier this year had cautioned that low tax revenue could force the Legislature to take up a budget repair bill later this year, but the most recent collections report could ease pressure on such a budget amendment. However, some lawmakers have hinted that a budget repair bill may still be necessary to ease potential impacts on the 2021-23 budget.

Dan Romportl, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Fitzgerald was not available for comment Tuesday. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, did not respond to a request for comment.

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