By SCOTT BAUER and TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Assembly was poised Thursday to repeal Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ mask mandate, a step that would brush aside warnings from health experts and make Wisconsin one of only 10 states without a statewide order.
The Assembly is scheduled to vote Thursday on a resolution doing away with the mandate. The Senate approved the resolution Tuesday. State law gives the Legislature authority to overturn emergency orders without the governor’s signature, making Thursday’s vote final.
Wisconsin has had a statewide mask mandate since August. It was scheduled to run until March 20.
More than two dozen public health organizations, as well as state and local health officials, have urged the Legislature to reconsider the vote. Wearing masks is one of the pillars of recommendations from health experts worldwide to slow the spread of the coronavirus, along with physically distancing and avoiding crowds.
The vote comes as Wisconsin lags in the distribution of coronavirus vaccines, health officials warn of the spread of contagious new variants and total deaths due to COVID-19 near 6,000.
The Legislature has fought Evers over his response to the pandemic from the beginning. Republicans supported a lawsuit that resulted in the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s overturning Evers’ “safer at home” order in May. Conservatives also succeeded in blocking capacity limits Evers established for bars, restaurants and other establishments, a case that is now before the state’s highest court.
Republicans also blame Evers for the slow distribution of the vaccine, but he has said the frustrating pace is a result of the federal government’s not supplying enough to meet demand.
On the question of masks, Republican lawmakers contend that Evers exceeded his authority by issuing more than one health emergency on his own, and mask orders, rather than asking the Legislature for approval every 60 days. That issue is also being argued before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Even if Wisconsin’s statewide order goes away, Milwaukee and Dane Counties — the state’s two most populous counties — and cities including Green Bay, Beloit, Racine, Superior and Whitewater have their own mask orders in place. Several rural counties have also enacted mask mandates.
Republicans who voted to repeal the statewide ban argue that life won’t change much because businesses, schools, clinics, churches and other places will still require people to wear masks, and people are free to choose to wear one.
Supporters of the mask mandate worry that removing it will lead to confusion, put more people at risk of catching the virus, and send the wrong message to the public about the importance of wearing masks.
The Legislature was also considering other coronavirus-related bills Thursday.
The Assembly was taking up a bill that would require immediately prioritizing the vaccination of everyone over age 60. Currently, only those over age 65 are eligible. Under the bill, the general public would be eligible no later than March 15.
Another proposal up for an Assembly vote would allow pharmacy students and pharmacy technicians to administer the vaccine.
Another broader COVID-19 response bill was back in the Senate. It passed an earlier version, which Evers endorsed, that was fairly limited in scope. But the Assembly on Tuesday amended it to prohibit employers from mandating vaccines for workers and to give the Legislature control over federal money to fight the pandemic.
The new version before the Senate was in danger of being vetoed by Evers.