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Wisconsin lawmakers to vote on repealing mask mandate (UPDATE)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature on Tuesday appeared poised to repeal Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide mask mandate, despite criticism from virtually every sector of the health care community that doing so would be a mistake.

The Senate was set to vote Tuesday on the resolution repealing the mask order. The Assembly would also have to pass it for the mandate to be repealed. Assembly Republican Speaker Robin Vos said that chamber, which was also in session, would “likely” pass the resolution as well, but he didn’t say when.

Twenty-three groups registered their opposition to the resolution, including ones that represent frontline health care workers, first responders, doctors, nurses, hospitals, public health officials and others. Among them are the Wisconsin Medical Society and the Wisconsin Hospital Association.

“The Governor’s mask mandate saves lives,” the Wisconsin Council of Churches said in a statement opposing the repeal. “Ending it will cost lives.” No groups had registered in support of the resolution before the Senate debate began.

“This clearly isn’t about public health,” Dr. Kristin Lyerly, an obstetrician from Green Bay, said at a news conference before the vote. “It’s about political games, power and control.”
Democratic lawmakers faulted Republicans for not passing any COVID-19 legislation since April and failing to reach a deal with Evers so far this year.

Republicans “are hell bent against anything Gov. Evers does to save lives and it is as destructive as it is tragic,” said Democratic state Sen. Kelda Roys, of Madison.

“We have to understand that your right to choose should not prevent my ability to live, to thrive, to be here to care for my kids, to see my grandkids,” said state Sen. LaTonya Johnson, a Democrat from Milwaukee. “We all have to do our part to make sure we are all protected.”

Republicans argued that Evers exceeded his authority by issuing multiple emergency declarations during the pandemic, which allowed him to extend the mask mandate beyond the 60 days allowed under the law without getting the Legislature’s approval. Republicans say Evers had to seek such approval for any order to last beyond 60 days. Evers contends that the changing nature of the pandemic, and the ongoing response, warranted new emergency declarations.

“This is not about whether face masks are good or bad,” the resolution’s author, Republican Sen. Steve Nass, said during the debate. Nass, like other Republican senators, was not wearing a mask. Democrats were masked and some attended the session virtually from their offices.

“This is about repeatedly issuing emergency orders contrary to what the law allows,” Nass said. “It’s about the rule of law.”

Evers’ mask mandate is also being challenged in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which heard arguments in November and could issue a ruling at any point.

Wisconsin’s mask mandate, which took effect in August, is slated to run until March 20. If the state ordered is repealed, local orders in place in many of the state’s most populated areas, including Milwaukee and Madison, would remain in effect.

The Assembly on Tuesday was also taking up a COVID-19 response bill that the Senate that the Senate passed and Evers supports. The Assembly was expected to make changes to the bill, which would then send it back to the Senate.

The bill as passed by the Senate would limit liability for COVID-19 claims against businesses, schools, governments and health care providers. It also would extend the waiver of a one-week waiting period to receive unemployment benefits only until March 14. Evers would rather extend the waiver into July. It also would ensure that Medicaid would cover COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, and guarantee that SeniorCare, the state’s prescription drug discount program for senior citizens, would cover vaccinations.

Assembly Republicans earlier approved a much more expansive bill with numerous provisions that Democrats opposed. Those included barring employers and governments from requiring employees from getting vaccinated; prohibiting the closure of churches and limiting the closure of businesses to two weeks at a time during health emergencies; and requiring a two-thirds majority school board vote every two weeks to keep schools online only.

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