By SCOTT BAUER and TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Organizers of a rally against Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order said Wednesday that they’ll proceed with the event even though their permit to hold it on the grounds of the Capitol was denied.
Two local sheriffs meanwhile cast doubt on whether they would enforce the state’s recently extended order that was designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
The protest planned for Friday would be the latest in a string of events throughout the country against such orders they say are damaging the economy. It has the potential to be the largest yet in Wisconsin; by Wednesday, more than 3,300 people said on Facebook that they were going and 12,000 were interested.
The organizer, Madison Elmer, applied for a permit with the state Department of Administration on April 14. Elmer said Wednesday that she was notified this week that the permit was denied because the gathering would violate the order barring gatherings of any size.
Elmer pledged to forge ahead, despite the risk of being cited by law enforcement.
“I think our message is bigger than that to be worried about it,” Elmer said.
A spokeswoman for Capitol Police hasn’t returned a message asking what type of enforcement there would be at the event. Madison Police Department spokesman Joel DeSpain said officers from his department would monitor it.
Gov. Tony Evers has said he respects the protesters’ free-speech rights, but that he also hopes they maintain a safe distance from one another.
Organizers urged participants to be peaceful. But they are leaving it up to each participant to decide whether to follow social-distancing guidelines that public health experts say are essential to stopping the spread of the virus.
Elmer said the event would be a chance to bring people together, even though the large gathering goes against all public health guidance and the current order against gatherings.
“It’s OK to be concerned about people getting sick from a virus,” Elmer said. “But it’s also OK for people to be concerned about how people are doing mentally, physically, emotionally. It’s OK to be concerned about the effect on the economy.”
Elmer said organizers turned down politicians who wanted to address the rally, instead inviting a doctor, a nurse, farmers and small business owners to speak.
Evers declared a public health emergency on March 12 and later ordered the closures of bars, restaurants and nonessential businesses. To date, 242 people have died from the virus and more than 4,600 have tested positive in Wisconsin.
The rally was originally timed to take place on the same day that Evers’ first stay-at-home order closing most nonessential businesses in the state was to expire. But last week, Evers’ health secretary extended the order until May 26.
The move angered Republicans who filed a lawsuit on Tuesday, asking the state’s conservative-controlled Supreme Court to block the order.
Local elected leaders voiced their opposition to the extended order.
Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling, a Republican, said it was crippling businesses and that he would leave enforcement of the order to public health experts.
“I cannot in good faith participate in the destruction of Racine County businesses or interfere in the freedoms granted to all of us by our Constitution,” he posted on Facebook.
Polk County Sheriff Brent Waak, a Republican, called the order an overreach and said he would only enforce it within reason.
“We’re not heavy-handed,” Waak said Wednesday. “That’s all I’m trying to do, is balance people’s freedoms with enforcing the order.”
Washington County Administrator Josh Schoemann reopened golf courses on April 16 in defiance of the order. Evers loosened restrictions to allow golf courses to open on Friday.
The Washington-Ozaukee County joint health department released its own recovery plan on Monday. Based on a proposal from The American Enterprise Institution, a conservative public policy think tank, the plan largely mirrors the federal guidelines and what Evers presented earlier this week.