Groups want mail-only election, order's effect unclear

FILE - In this Thursday Feb. 6, 2020 file photo, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers holds a press conference in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers says he will order the closure of all non-essential businesses starting Tuesday, March 24, 2020, due to the coronavirus outbreak. He's also urging people to stay at home to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.(Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers issued a sweeping order Tuesday closing businesses nonessential businesses throughout the state, banning gatherings of any size and imposing month-long travel restrictions in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Evers’ order has numerous exceptions but was designed to severely curtail movement around the state and force people to stay at home.

Evers said he didn’t want to have to issue such an order, but “folks need to start taking this seriously.” The goal of the order, which is similar to orders issued in many other states, is to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic so that doctors and nurses won't get overwhelmed with patients.

It will be up to local law enforcement to make sure people are obeying the new restrictions, which take effect at 8 a.m. Wednesday and are set to run through April 24, though the timeline could be altered.

Evers ordered Wisconsin residents to stay at home, with exceptions for essential work, activities and limited travel. He said people could still go outside to walk and ride bikes, but he ordered all playgrounds closed and he barred team sports such as basketball and football.

All public and private gatherings of any number of people who are not in the same family or living unit are prohibited. Evers previously limited gatherings to no more than 10 people.

Anyone who leaves home is required to maintain a 6-foot distance from other people as part of the social distancing effort that health officials say is the only effective way to slow the spread of the virus.

Businesses allowed to remain open include hospitals and other health care facilities; grocery stores; bars and restaurants offering delivery and carry-out food; child care facilities; post offices; airports and other businesses offering essential services; pharmacies; gas stations; banks and other financial institutions; laundries and dry cleaners; hardware stores; churches and paces of worship; funeral homes and media outlets.

Critical construction work, including plumbers, electricians, carpenters and janitors, were also exempted. Professional services, including lawyers, accountants and insurance agents, were exempted but encouraged to work from home.

Evers previously ordered K-12 public and private schools to close. The order now mandates that all places of public amusement and activity close, including swimming pools, water parks, aquariums, arcades, museums, zoos, children's play centers, bowling alleys, movie theaters, concert venues, country clubs, social clubs, gyms and fitness centers.

The order came amid growing criticism from Republicans.

The partisan divide could become more important later, as the emergency health order Evers issued on March 12 is only valid for 60 days. For it to continue beyond May 11, the Republican-controlled Legislature would have to extend it. The Legislature also has the power to revoke an emergency declaration, which could undo many of the closings and steps being taken to combat the virus, which has killed five people in the state and infected more than 400.

“Every business in WI that provides an individual and/or family an income is essential,” Republican state Sen. Chris Kapenga, of Delafield, tweeted Tuesday ahead of the order being issued.

Republican concerns in Wisconsin come as President Donald Trump began to publicly question whether the economic cost was worth it. Wisconsin Republicans are also now pushing for more involvement in the decisions that Evers has been making under authority given to governors through the health emergency declaration he issued this month.

The Legislature, not the governor, should be the one to issue an order like the one Evers issued, said Republican Sen. David Craig, of Big Bend. He is one of the most conservative members of the Legislature.

Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative law firm the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, wrote last week about the powers the governor has in times of crisis. Esenberg and the institute have sued Evers and Democrats over numerous issues and are a leading conservative voice in the state.

Whether Evers' orders are narrow enough to withstand legal scrutiny is an open question, Esenberg wrote.

“These issues may become more important as the crisis goes on,” he wrote. “But it is unlikely that a court would second-guess a Governor now, given the degree of uncertainty and fear that has gripped the nation.”

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