The Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide mask mandate. Following the ruling, some local counties, municipalities and schools made statements about their plans now that the statewide mandate is down.
March 31 the conservative-leaning court ruled 4-3 that Evers violated state law by unilaterally issuing multiple emergency orders to extend the mandate for months. The court found Evers needed legislative approval to issue more orders after the initial 60-day mandate he issued in August expired.
“The question in this case is not whether the governor acted wisely; it is whether he acted lawfully. We conclude he did not,” Justice Brian Hagedorn wrote for the majority.
The decision marks another legal defeat for Evers. The Supreme Court in May struck down his stay-at-home order, finding that his health secretary lacked the authority to issue such an order. A state appeals court blocked Evers’ attempts to limit capacity in bars, restaurants and other indoor places in October.
Wednesday’s decision comes as COVID-19 cases have been rising in the state. The seven-day average has jumped from fewer than 400 cases in mid-March to 501 on Tuesday. State Department of Health Services Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said the state is seeing “warning signs” that another surge in infections is about to begin.
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, a member of the court’s three-justice minority, lamented in a dissent that the ruling hampers the ability of governors in Wisconsin to protect lives.
“This is no run-of-the-mill case,” she wrote. “We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that so far has claimed the lives of over a half million people in this country. And with the stakes so high, the majority not only arrives at erroneous conclusions, but it also obscures the consequence of its decision. Unfortunately, the ultimate consequence of the majority’s decision is that it places yet another roadblock to an effective governmental response to COVID-19.”
Republican lawmakers applauded the ruling. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said in a statement that Evers abused his power and the court’s decision affirms the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches.
Nearly 60 organizations opposed repeal of the mask mandate, including groups representing hospitals, doctors, nurses, EMTs, school administrators, businesses, children, unions, some schools, American Indian tribes, pharmacists, firefighters, local health departments, senior citizens, churches and dentists.
Following the decision Kelli Engen, St. Croix County Public Health Administrator, released a message from St. Croix County Public Health asking everyone to continue wearing masks.
“We were informed of the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision today to repeal the Governor’s mask mandate. We are meeting with our local and regional partners to determine the safest way to move forward for the people of our county and surrounding areas. The Supreme Court’s decision is unfortunate. We know that masks work to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep the people of our communities safe. Regardless of the decision we still recommend the wearing of masks as an important tool to fight this virus.’
“There continues to be cases of COVID-19 throughout Wisconsin, including all Western Wisconsin counties. There have also been cases of variants which may spread more easily. While there is no longer a statewide mask mandate, it is still the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Public Health to follow all COVID-19 precautions. This recommendation includes wearing a mask when in a public setting, enclosed space, or anytime there is close contact to another person outside of your household.’
“Everyone should continue to wear a mask. Masks act as a simple barrier that help prevent your respiratory droplets from reaching others. When you breathe, talk, cough, or sneeze you are releasing respiratory droplets that can spread the virus. Even if you don’t feel sick you should wear a mask. The virus can spread before someone develops symptoms or even if you are asymptomatic and show no symptoms.’
“Following these COVID-19 precautions in combination with vaccination is the best defense we have against this virus:
• Wearing a mask
• Physically distancing
• Avoiding crowds
• Washing your hands often
• Covering your coughs and sneezes
• Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces
• Monitoring your health
• Staying home when sick
• Getting vaccinated
Public Health and our partners are taking all available actions to prevent the spread of this virus in our communities. This includes vaccination, however those vaccinated also need to follow all COVID-19 precautions while we continue to wait for further guidance from medical experts on how long the vaccine protects you, how well it protects others, and the effectiveness against the variants. Please consider your health and the health of those around you by following the proven safety measures to keep our community safe. Wearing a mask protects us all.”
School responses are varying. Baldwin-Woodville is one of 39 schools that make up Wisconsin’s CESA #11 District. Also in CESA #11 is Unity School District who has changed their mask policy to “strongly encourage” but not require. The school’s update said, “Wisconsin’s Emergency Order requiring face coverings is no longer in effect. Unity’s Reopening Plan was partially based upon that order. Due to this change and the continued success of the COVID precautions in the District, the following changes will be made: Face coverings for students will be encouraged, but not required, in classroom settings. There are some specific instances where they may be necessary that are outlined in the parent letter. Unity employees will continue to wear face coverings until after May 1, when they have had an opportunity to be fully vaccinated. Other COVID precautions will continue to be encouraged as well. An emphasis remains on proper handwashing and social distancing.”
Baldwin-Woodville Superintendent of Schools, Eric Russell, sent out a message to district families following the court decision, which read, “Be aware that this decision does not impact any regional, county, municipal or school board decision that may be in place to mandate the wearing of masks. The Baldwin-Woodville Area School Board acted last November to mandate masks unless a doctor’s note is provided. Therefore, masks are still required while in a school building. We are not requiring masks outside and we are continually looking for opportunities for mask breaks. As conditions continue to improve and once staff has had an opportunity to become fully vaccinated, we will evaluate the need to continue with masks.
Again, masks are still required, but I am hopeful we are in the home stretch.”
Reporting from the Associated Press contributed to this story.