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MADISON — Declaring a public health emergency, Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday issued an emergency order requiring individuals statewide to wear facial coverings when indoors and not in a private residence. The order takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday (Aug. 1) and expires on Sept. 28.
“While our local health departments have been doing a heck of a job responding to this pandemic in our communities, the fact of the matter is, this virus doesn’t care about any town, city, or county boundary, and we need a statewide approach to get Wisconsin back on track,” Gov. Evers said in a news release. “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. 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.”
Under this order, Wisconsin residents ages five and older will be required to wear a face covering when they are indoors or in an enclosed space with anyone outside their household or living unit. Face coverings are strongly recommended when outdoors and maintaining physical distancing is not possible.
The order also makes exceptions to the requirement, listing activities such as when an individual is eating, drinking, or swimming. Individuals with health conditions or disabilities that would preclude the wearing of a face-covering safely are also exempt from the requirement. A violation of the order would not carry criminal penalties but could result in a $200 fine.
Wisconsin becomes the 31st state in the country – plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia – to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus by requiring individuals to wear facial coverings. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has advocated mask use to reduce the spread of airborne droplets carrying the virus.
Prior to Evers’ Thursday announcement, local cities and counties had issued their own mandatory mask rules. The City of Milwaukee and Dane County (Madison) were the first to enact facial covering requirements. Several other communities, including Green Bay, Superior and Whitefish Bay, have followed suit. The City of Racine’s mandatory facial covering ordinance – approved on a narrow Common Council vote – took effect on Monday. Mask use has not been required in the rest of Racine County.
Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, whose district includes part of the City of Racine and much of Racine and Kenosha counties, issued this statement Thursday afternoon:
“You can’t legislate common sense. For that reason, I continue to strongly oppose this one-size-fits-all approach of Gov. Evers’ response to the coronavirus in this state, including the statewide mask mandate. It’s transparent and blatantly political that his order doesn’t take effect until his handpicked Supreme Court justice takes office.”
The Wisconsin Supreme Court in May ruled, in a 4-3 decision, that the secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) did not have the authority to institute the “Safer at Home” order, which controlled many business and public access locations. The high court was controlled 5-2 by conservatives when it struck down the DHS order. But on Saturday, Justice-elect Jill Karofsky joins the court. Running as a liberal, she was elected in April with 55.3 percent of the vote.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that the statewide rise in COVID-19 cases, not Karofsky’s joining the court, motivated Evers to issue the mask order at this time. The governor has also been under pressure from local governments and some fellow Democrats to issue a statewide order.
Evers and the DHS on Thursday cited statistics indicating that Wisconsin is seeing new and significant community spread and increase in cases of COVID-19. As of this week, 61 of 72 counties (84 percent) representing 96 percent of the state’s population are experiencing high COVID-19 activity. By contrast, only 19 of 72 counties (26%) were experiencing high COVID-19 activity in June.
In addition, the DHS reported that the average number of new confirmed cases of COVID-19 has drastically increased throughout July, with an average of 556 new cases each day between July 1-7, an average of 764 new cases each day between July 8-14 (a 37 percent increase from the previous week), an average of 890 new cases each day between July 15-21 (a 16 percent increase from the previous week), and an average of 938 new cases each day between July 22-26 (a 5 percent increase from the previous week).
The Racine County Eye has assembled information to help you find masks and facial coverings by Saturday.