Like many famous quotes, a version of this one is attributed to various individuals from Lincoln to Reagan and in the writings of “The Great Dissenter,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
“The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”
Let us rephrase that in relation to the current Wisconsin and, indeed, national debate over face coverings.
“The right to expel a potential viral load from my nose ends where the other guy’s safety begins.”
It is an embarrassment over the past year that Wisconsin’s primary contribution to addressing the pandemic has been a running political duel between Democrat Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican-controlled Assembly and Senate.
Neither side has distinguished itself. The governor’s leadership has been weak and largely ineffective. Legislators essentially took the year off, scarcely engaging with the pandemic. The only thing that seemed to motivate legislative leaders was partisan bickering over the governor’s public health emergency declarations.
Apparently, the leadership believes the most important issue involves politicizing such things as mask wearing and other restrictions intended to slow the spread. Acting affirmatively to lessen the risk of viral transmission is a bridge too far.
The latest episode pivots on Evers’ mask mandate and legislators’ attempts to override it. Senate Republicans voted last week, 18-13, to scrap the order. Shamefully, the vote ignored solid opposition from first responders, doctors, nurses, hospitals, frontline health care workers including the Wisconsin Medical Society, the Wisconsin Hospital Association and the Pharmacy Society of Wisconsin.
Expert opinion counts for little in these days of political polarization.
It’s worth noting, from a local perspective, that state Sen. Steve Nass, R-La Grange, was leading the charge—maskless, by the way—on the Senate floor to block Evers’ order. State Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, sided with health professionals.
There’s a reprieve of sorts, for the moment, because of a financial wrinkle. The Republican-led effort to make Wisconsin a champion of exposed noses has been paused by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. It appears discarding a public health emergency declaration could jeopardize $50 million a month in federal aid for low-income Wisconsin residents. The Assembly and Senate are considering a work-around, and Vos says a vote could come as early as this week.
The inability of the parties to work together is breathtaking.
This is where it leads. Public health considerations—the kind with broad expert support and polls showing more than 70% backing among citizens—can’t break through the partisan fog.
The only bright spot is that local mask mandates and emergency health policies by municipalities like Beloit and by Rock County are not overturned by the partisan ineptitude in Madison. So far, anyway. Never underestimate the willingness of the partisans to sink even lower.
Look, this is uncharted ground, and balancing the best public health response with the people’s needs is not easy. There’s room for disagreement. Schools need to be open. Businesses have to be able to survive. Jobs won’t come back strongly enough until people feel safe to shop. To change all that America must get from where it is, in the grip of a dark pandemic winter, to the other side where full recovery is a realistic expectation.
The shame is that politicians, yet again, are demonstrating they are not the solution, but the problem. They will not even make an effort to work together in this, a once in a hundred years life-and-death pandemic.
The message is inescapable. Don’t look to Madison. The burden of leadership falls on Rock County, Beloit, Janesville and other local authorities across this troubled state.