By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The largely bipartisan approach to attacking the coronavirus in Wisconsin showed signs of cracking after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said he was ordering all nonessential businesses to close to help slow the spread of COVID-19 by keeping more people at home.
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 that has killed five people in the state and infected more than 400.
Republican state lawmakers and Evers were mostly in agreement this month as the governor closed schools, restricted the size of public gatherings first to no more than 50 people and then to 10, and then closed all bars and restaurants and some other businesses.
But with the Evers’ announcement on Monday that he was forcing all nonessential businesses to shut down, after saying Friday he didn’t think such a move was necessary, Republicans voiced their loudest criticism to date.
“Every business in WI that provides an individual and/or family an income is essential,” Republican state Sen. Chris Kapenga, of Delafield, tweeted Tuesday.
Republican legislative leaders said they weren’t consulted before the order was announced, which Evers said he made after talking with public health experts, local elected officials and business owners. They were all in agreement that a more extensive shut down was needed to ensure that the state’s health-care system is not overrun with patients, Evers argued.
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 Evers has been making under authority given to governors through the health emergency declaration he issued earlier this month.
The Legislature, not the governor, should be the one to issue an order like the one Evers planned to put out on Tuesday closing businesses and urging people to stay at home, said Republican Sen. David Craig, of Big Bend. He is one of the most conservative members of the Legislature.
Craig said he wants the Legislature to take action to curb the governor’s executive powers in times of emergencies.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald were more measured in their joint response to the Evers order. They largely faulted him for not providing the details on Monday about who would be affected and also complained they weren’t involved in the discussions ahead of the decision being made.
“There also needs to be a better understanding as to why the decisions are being made, because of the impact on the economy, businesses and residents of the state,” Vos and Fitzgerald said.
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.”