The Wisconsin Supreme Court decision to overturn the Evers administration’s safer-at-home order is lamentable mainly because the court seemed not to care there is no backup plan.
Wisconsin was making progress toward ending the safer-at-home order, having met several benchmarks within the governor’s Badger Bounce Back plan. This week, Gov. Tony Evers allowed nonessential businesses to reopen, with limitations, taking another step toward the plan’s Phase 1. While critics complained the plan moved too slowly, its goal was laudable: To reopen the economy while minimizing COVID-19 infections.
But in an instant, the Supreme Court removed the plan’s guardrails—the safer-at-home order—and fractured the state’s response to COVID-19. Rock County tried to fill the void Thursday by issuing its own safer-at-home order. But to the east, Walworth County opted not to adopt a local order.
It’s too early to say how big of a setback Wisconsin will experience, but the flagrant dismissal of social-distancing guidelines at bars statewide Wednesday and Thursday is not an encouraging sign. We know of at least two bars in Janesville that began serving customers before Rock County issued its safer-at-home order, while many bars in other parts of the state did the same thing. A packed bar in Platteville showed people celebrating as if a COVID-19 vaccine had been discovered.
There is no vaccine.
Our biggest concern is the confusion the Supreme Court decision is likely to create, as a patchwork of policies across the state leaves people to guess what’s acceptable and what’s not. For good reason, state statutes give the state Department of Health wide latitude to fight communicable diseases. Viruses don’t respect municipal boundaries, which is why pandemics are best left to the state to manage.
Justice Brian Hagedorn was the only conservative to dissent in the 4-3 decision to overturn the safer-at-home order. We share his concern about the policy vacuum created by the majority decision. “In striking down most of Order 28, this court has strayed from its charge and turned this case into something quite different than the case brought to us. To make matters worse, it has failed to provide almost any guidance for what the relevant laws mean, and how our state is to govern through this crisis moving forward,” he wrote.
Many Republicans view the Supreme Court’s decision as a victory for businesses, but the victory will be short lived if it leads to outbreaks linked to businesses. Many people won’t shop or eat out if they don’t feel safe, and conservatives seem to forget that there was widespread support for the safer-at-home order (69% approval in the latest Marquette University Law School poll).
Reopening the economy requires a deliberate, cohesive strategy, essentially the exact opposite of what Wednesday’s ruling produced. Rock County is doing what it can by issuing its own safer-at-home order, but such leadership should be coming from the state. Evers wasn’t exaggerating in describing the state’s new virus response as the “Wild West.”