Republican state senators vote to overturn statewide mask mandate

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin’s State Senate is voting to overturn Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide mask mandate, sending the resolution to the State Assembly.

A total of 18 state senators voted to overturn the mandate, while 13 voted against the resolution. Two Republicans — Sen. Dale Kooyenga and Sen. Robert Cowles — voted against throwing out the mandate.

Twenty-nine legislature Republicans put their names on the resolution that would overturn the state’s only legal measure in place preventing the spread of COVID-19. In a separate Assembly session Tuesday, speaker Robin Vos said he would likely take it up for a vote only when the measure passes the Senate. That vote is scheduled to be held on Thursday.

The senate vote followed well over four hours of debate and a break for caucusing, even as medical professionals around the state urged the legislature not to support the resolution. Twenty-three lobbyist associations registered their opposition to the legislation, including the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, Medical College of Wisconsin, Pharmacy Society of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Hospital Association, and others. The numbers opposing climbed throughout the day Tuesday; no groups, however, had registered their support.

“We ask all of our government leaders to support physicians and other front-line health care workers by promoting mask-wearing as an effective tool against COVID-19,” CEO Bud Chumbley, MD for the Wisconsin Medical Society said in a statement.

“Make no mistake, if the Senate votes in favor of overturning the mask mandate, we are going to see increased death and illness in Wisconsin, and we are going to see this pandemic getting worse, and the economic devastation continuing,” Madison-area state senator Kelda Roys said in a briefing with Democrat lawmakers Tuesday morning. “Health care workers and frontline workers are begging us to wear masks.”

Michigan is currently the only state without a statewide emergency order, according to the National Governor’s Association, and forty-one states have mask mandates in place according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.

The resolution argues that the legislature never gave Governor Evers the authority to extend the public health emergency order that provides the basis for the mask mandate after its initial 60-day period beginning in March. An analysis from the Legislative Reference Bureau stipulates that all of the subsequent public health emergencies declared since then have been unlawful, under the state Supreme Court’s ruling in May that overturned the Safer at Home order.

“This is not about whether face masks are good or bad, this is about repeatedly issuing emergency orders contrary to what the law allows,” resolution author Senator Steve Nass said.

Democrats said that the move was political, coming as it does after many lawmakers first faced reelection in the 2020 general election.

“The rest of society is wondering what the hell we’re doing here today,” Democrat senator Chris Larson asked. “If it’s not political, why weren’t we voting on this in August?”

Tuesday’s vote doesn’t impact county-level mask mandates such as are in effect in Dane and Milwaukee counties. Wisconsin’s mask mandate is the only statewide mandate related to protection against COVID-19.

The CDC recommends the use of masks as one of the best means of stopping the spread of COVID-19, medical guidance widely shared in the medical community and a directive that’s been in place since early on in the pandemic last year.