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Capital City Sunday: POTUS tests positive, DHS reacts to WMC lawsuit & mask order challenge

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Coronavirus cases are surging in Wisconsin, which ranks third nationwide in new COVID-19 cases per capita over the past two weeks, and some hospitals are nearing capacity to take care of patients.

With the news President Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm says she hopes it’s a wake-up call for Wisconites to start taking the virus more seriously.

“It speaks to the widespread community transmission we are seeing in Wisconsin and across the county and need for all of us together to take the steps and actions that we need to reduce the spread,” said Palm.

When asked how close the state is to opening a state-run field hospital as some health care facilities are nearing capacity, Palm said she’s more concerned about having enough staff at hospitals right now. 

“(Hospitals) are having a lot of their staff test positive when out in the community and getting sick and you can’t have those folks working in the hospital,” she said. “Their staffing is just as much as a limiting factor for them as actual physical space.”

DHS Responds to WMC Lawsuit Over Identifying Businesses With Positive Cases

The state's largest business group, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, sued Evers and other state officials to prevent the release of the names of businesses that have had at least two employees test positive for COVID-19.

A Waukesha County judge issued a temporary restraining order against Gov. Tony Evers and other state leaders from releasing the names of businesses whose employees have tested positive for COVID-19.

Palm says depending on the ruling, the department doesn’t intend to post names of businesses on their website but says they are obligated to follow open record requests of those seeking information about positive cases related to businesses.

“These are records within the boundaries of the open record request and we will wait for the court to decide and we will comply,” said Palm.

Last month, Evers said he didn’t have plans to release private information about businesses associated with positive COVID-19 cases, but on Thursday said "we have a legal obligation to the public to release that information.”

When pressed on what’s changed since September after Evers said he didn’t plan to release this information, Palm didn’t directly answer the question instead said they would only release information about businesses DHS has determined as closed investigations.

Palm did not directly answer questions when asked about how this could potentially damage business reputations if the public becomes aware of a previous investigation related to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Rep. Pocan Reacts to POTUS testing positive, ask state leaders to “do more” on COVID-19

Rep. Mark Pocan is hoping more Wisconsinites will start changing their attitudes towards COVID-19 since the president and the First Lady tested positive for COVID-19.

Pocan took aim at Trump for downplaying the virus and hopes this can be a lesson to those who may not have thought the warnings about the coronavirus we’re overblown. 

“No longer can ignorance, arrogance or denial stand in the way in what we have to do,” said Pocan. “We have to be smarter.”

Pocan is calling on legislative leaders and the Governor, without naming Evers directly, to start planning for future super-spreader events such as Badger football games. He also asking state leaders to be more aggressive in enforcing safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.  

“I need to see some urgency from legislative leaders and from the very top,” said Pocan. “We need to know that this is a serious and the urgency is there because I’m afraid if we don’t things in the winter will only be worse.”

Sen. Ron Johnson on Absentee Ballots, COVID-19 Surge

When asked about the upcoming election Johnson again floated the idea to have state lawmakers change laws to allow clerks to count ballots ahead of Nov. 3.

With lawmakers unlikely to return session before the election, Johnson said while it’s a “heavy lift to ask” he’s still urging Republicans to convene to clarify election deadlines instead of leaving it up to the courts.

“I think we should follow election laws we have in place, but lawmakers should at least go in and set election deadlines and hope our courts follow the laws as written,” he said.

Last week was a federal appeals court declined a request by Republicans to suspend a ruling that will allow absentee ballots to be counted for six days after the election as long as they are postmarked by election day.

Debate on Mask Wearing

Despite President Donald Trump's positive diagnosis for COVID-19, Republicans in Wisconsin are continuing their attempts to undo the mask mandate imposed by Gov. Tony Evers.

Republicans who control the state Legislature have filed a motion in support of a lawsuit that seeks to undo a statewide mask order.

A motion hearing on the case is scheduled for 3 p.m. Monday in Polk County Circuit court in a lawsuit brought by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

Meanwhile, coronavirus cases are surging in Wisconsin, which ranks third nationwide in new COVID-19 cases per capita over the past two weeks.

Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) said 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. 

Nygren and several other Republicans say they 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 of Republican lawmaker’s 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."

*A. J. Bayatpour contributed to this report, READ MORE ON MASK DEBATE HERE

Emilee Fannon

Capital Bureau Chief

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