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Lt. Gov Barnes renews call for GOP lawmakers to take up COVID-19 relief

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MADISON (WKOW) -- As Wisconsin grapples with record-high COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, the state's top Democrats renewed their calls for the Republican-led legislature to return to session and address the pandemic.

As of Thursday, medical officials in northeastern Wisconsin worried the surge in new cases in that part of the state threatened to cause an overflow in hospitals. Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes said the governor's office has tried to work with legislative leaders on a package of bills, but those efforts had gone nowhere.

"It shouldn't take us to have to convince them to show up to want to solve this problem," Barnes said.

Barnes added even if Republicans did not want to take up any legislation, their actions -- chiefly litigation over the mask order, which Gov. Tony Evers extended last week -- fueled the distrust some Wisconsinites have about the threat of COVID-19 and the effectiveness of masks.

"Leadership starts at the top and I'm not sure what type of association people have with masks," Barnes said. "It feels ridiculous."

State Rep. John Nygren (R - Marinette), who co-chairs the state's powerful Joint Finance Committee, said Republicans are not opposed to public health recommendations like mask wearing, but rather, the governor's decision to mandate it through emergency order extensions they argue were no longer valid after the initial 60-day window.

"We should follow the recommendations, yet this is not about those recommendations," Nygren said. "This is about whether the governor's action is actually legal or not."

Nygren bristled at the idea Republican lawmakers attitudes toward Evers' orders contributed to mask wearing and physical distancing becoming the newest theaters in the culture war.

"Everything in play right now with the election has got people on edge and everything, while it may not literally be political, it has a perception of politicization," Nygren said. "And that's why people are concerned about these types of moves by government."

Nygren added he believed the split over whether mask mandates are appropriate is not between liberals and conservatives as much as it is an urban-rural divide, with those from rural communities feeling the orders are another attempt by government to interfere in their lives.

"I don't follow that same train that this is just Republicans being against the recommendations from the CDC," Nygren said. "I think this is more about standing up for the law and people believing their rights are being trampled."

Barnes said it was clear -- citing largely maskless crowds and President Donald Trump's campaign rallies -- conservatives were far more likely to resist calls from public health officials, regardless of whether they came in form of mandates or suggestions.

"People like John Nygren are unfortunately disconnected from reality and even in urban centers, cities like Milwaukee and Madison, people aren't in love with the idea of wearing masks," Barnes said. "People are accepting of the fact that is the safe thing to do."

While some Republicans in the state Senate have called for the legislature to take up a bill that would strike down Evers' emergency order, Nygren said he would prefer to let that process play out in the courts. Conservative law group, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty filed such a suit in August; a judge will hear arguments Monday about WILL's motion for the order to not be in effect while the case is decided.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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