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Capital City Sunday: Mask mandate extension angers GOP; restaurants pleading for help

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MADISON (WKOW) -- During a week in which hospitalizations due to COVID-19 reached a record high in Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers and state health officers extended the emergency order that requires people to wear masks in public.

DHS Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm cited the more than 500 patients hospitalized throughout the state because of the virus. She also noted the 7-day average of new cases had nearly tripled from fewer than 700 in late August to nearly 2,000 new cases per day.

"That is why extending the mask mandate was so important," Palm said. "Because, yes, our case numbers are still going up and we also know masks work. The science shows that they form a barrier against respiratory droplets that spread COVID-19."

The extension prompted swift blowback from Republican legislators who consider the order a unilateral and unlawful overreach of executive power.

"With an emergency order, it gives very strong powers to the executive branch and we understand that, for 60 days, that's in our laws and it makes sense," said State Sen. Duey Stroebel (R - Saukville). "But the problem is we're dealing with the same 'emergency,' the same pandemic and he doesn't have the right to continue to just do a series of 60-day emergency orders."

Stroebel said he wants lawmakers to return to the Capitol to rescind the emergency order. Multiple state senators, include Stroebel, have said there is support for the move in the Senate but Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is not committing to do the same with the Assembly. Neither Vos nor his office responded to 27 News' questions.

Stroebel said he believed, laws aside, Republicans had no obligation to publicly encourage mask wearing.

""I'm not a scientist, I'm not a doctor," Stroebel said. "I think you could also look at some facts that say the masks really haven't been changing anything."

Public health authorities in Stroebel's own district, including the Washington Ozaukee Health Department and Fond du Lac County Health Department have called on residents to wear masks in public as part of the effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

When asked what solution he would offer after striking down the mask order, Stroebel said individual counties and cities should make their own rules; Republicans have pushed this measure of local control since March, against the guidance of most state public health officials and doctors who have called for a more uniform approach.

"Let's let the local people who are more in tune with what is going on in their actual community, they should really be the ones to deal with it," Stroebel said.

The Republican-controlled legislature has not passed a bill in more than 160 days. Stroebel said relief for struggling businesses and families would best come from the federal level, citing the CARES Act.

Restaurants on the Brink

A recent survey from the Wisconsin Restaurant Association found one-thirds of its members said they expect to close their business within the next six months if the current capacity restrictions remain in place.

Still, more restaurateurs were pessimistic about their outlook when asked about a scenario where eateries get no additional federal or state aid.

Francesca Hong owns Morris Ramen just off the Capitol Square. She also is all but guaranteed a seat in the Assembly next year as the Democratic nominee in the 76th district; the Republican primary was uncontested. Hong said she understands why eatery owners are not forming a loud lobby for government assistance, even though many desperately need it.

"This year has brought hardships beyond imagination and, for those in the industry, we're a stubborn group," Hong said. "We don't like asking for help often."

Hong said the industry's fears are only worsening as winter approaches and one source of salvation -- relaxed rules for outdoor dining -- will become largely irrelevant. She called on Republican legislative leaders to return for a special session that would, in part, relax additional rules and provide financial aid for the state's service industry.

"I think there needs to be a shift from austerity measures and looking really at protecting the communities and protecting the businesses," she said.

With her victory most assured, Hong has spent the campaign season stumping for candidates in more contested races elsewhere in the state.

"I think there are some sleeper candidates," Hong said. "I think you're gonna see some changes as long as folks come out to vote."

Hong has been outspoken in her support of racial justice protests this summer in Madison, prompted by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as well as the shooting of Jacob Blake.

Demonstrations in Madison have occasionally turned violent and have called for massive cuts to police budgets or even outright abolition of policing as an institution. Hong said she believed activists could win over moderate voters elsewhere in the state by pursuing incremental policy changes.

"I think there needs to be an understanding that calling for an abolishing of police is a larger vision," Hong said. "How we get there is going to depend on local communities and local municipalities bringing more community control."

A Whirlwind Week in Washington

The past week brought a flurry of national developments that would typically command the news cycle for days. It became clear Senate Republicans have the votes to confirm a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died September 18. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, regardless of the November 3 election results.

"That just simply is unacceptable to have a president say you wouldn't accept the result of an election," said UW-Madison Political Science Professor David Canon.

With regard to replacing Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, Democrats have said the Senate GOP is full of hypocrites for rushing to seat a replacement before the election when, in 2016, it refused to hold hearings for Merrick Garland when Barack Obama nominated him eight months before that election.

Republican senators, including Wisconsin's Ron Johnson, have said the circumstances are different this time because the same party controls both the White House and has a majority in the Senate.

"I think the outlier here was the Merrick Garland experience," Canon said. "That was the situation that was really unprecedented...to delay a nomination for eight months before the election in 2016. That was unprecedented."

Canon said Senate Democrats don't have any real parliamentary maneuvers to stall the vote until November of January because Republicans have taken away the filibuster for SCOTUS hearings and now require a simple majority for confirmation instead of 60 votes.

Canon said if Democrats win the presidency and take control of the Senate, he would not be surprised to see them respond by packing the courts -- adding seats to the Supreme Court to fill with their own preferred judges. It's a scenario Canon said could lead to a back-and-forth that ultimately destabilizes the republic.

"Where does that stop, then? Do we end up with a Supreme Court with 20 justices on it?" Canon asked. "It seems like the escalation of this partisanship needs to end at some point."

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A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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