The differing year-end responses of elected officials across Wisconsin to the COVID-19 pandemic that is sickening, hospitalizing and killing record numbers of us is stunning.
At one end of the response continuum are Dane County and Madison officials, who last week banned all—yes, all—indoor gatherings of individuals who don’t live in a household. The ban came one week before traditional Thanksgiving family gatherings and runs through Dec. 16. Violators could face fines of up to $1,000.
The edict prompted predictable outrage: Will police cruise neighborhoods on Thanksgiving, looking for homes with large numbers of vehicles parked outside? Will they use drones? Is a grandmother providing day care for her 3-year-old grandchild violating the ban?
But Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said household gatherings are “where we are seeing the greatest amount of disease spread.”
“Our hospitals are overflowing, our doctors and nurses are running ragged, and everywhere we turn there is sickness, creating a challenge like none other we have ever seen,” Parisi added.
At the other end of the continuum is incoming state Senate President Chris Kapenga, the Republican from Delafield who will preside over the Senate for the 2021-22 session and a potential candidate for governor in 2022.
Asked about COVID-19 proposals from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Assembly Republicans leaders, Kapenga told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “At this point, I haven’t seen anything that I’m real excited about.”
Kapenga’s comment suggests that, even if Assembly Republicans pass COVID-19 bills in a December lame-duck session, Kapenga will recommend that the Senate not meet this year.
Those bookend responses leave Evers and Assembly Republicans, led by Speaker Robin Vos, in the middle. Their agreement that a response is needed before the end of the year is one of the few things they have agreed on since Evers took office in January 2019.
For his part, Evers last week recommended setting aside $541 million in state funds to pay for COVID-19 testing, hospital and other costs in just the first three months of next year, if the federal government fails to provide any new aid.
The $541 million includes $75 million more in keep-the-doors-open aid to Wisconsin businesses.
Evers also asked the Legislature to prohibit evictions and foreclosures next year; continue to suspend the one-week waiting period for unemployment insurance benefits; require insurers to cover telehealth services and diagnostics, testing and treatment costs; give health care workers who contact the virus workers compensation benefits and allow Social Security disability recipients to qualify for unemployment benefits.
Evers said his 19-bill package is ready for the Legislature to pass.
Vos said Assembly Republicans don’t have any COVID-19 bills drafted yet, so he outlined their general goals: doubling the number of contact tracers; better access to rapid testing; piloting a test-at-home program; changing the unemployment system so claimants don’t have to wait months for benefits, and giving businesses, organizations, school districts and local governments immunity from COVID-19 lawsuits if they have followed public safety protocols.
Senate President Kapenga, how do you feel about banning foreclosures and evictions and continuing to waive the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits?
“I’m not real keen on that stuff,” Kapenga told the Journal Sentinel.
Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court will play a key role in the debate when it rules on whether the soaring numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths justify repeated public health “emergency” declarations by Evers.
In March, the Evers Administration issued a safer-at-home order that was struck down by the state Supreme Court.
Evers also ordered the wearing of face masks in enclosed areas and 25% occupancy limits in rooms and buildings statewide—orders challenged by businesses. The Supreme Court will decide whether those orders can be in effect for more than 60 days without action by the Legislature.
Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn said the “power of local governments” to fight COVID-19 is broader than the 60-day limit on governors’ emergency declarations the Legislature imposed in 1959.
Hagedorn’s comment seemed to give legal support for Dane County’s ban on indoor gatherings, despite critics who say it is unenforceable.
Evers outlined what’s at stake: If Wisconsin residents don’t stay home, wear face masks and socially distance when they must go out, deaths from the virus will double in six weeks—from 2,500 to 5,000—by Jan. 1.