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Capital City Sunday: GOP refusal to vote down Gov. orders, 50% of restaurants at risk of closing & rural counties enter ‘crisis mode’

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MADISON (WKOW) -- State Senator Chris Kapenga says he doesn’t believe masks are making a difference in the fight against COVID-19, despite top scientists and health professionals saying wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of the virus.

The Republican Senator from Delafield argues he didn't see a significant decrease in the number of cases across the state after Governor Tony Evers issued a statewide mask order on July 30th.

“We went from no mask to a mask and there’s no significant decrease in cases,” said Kapenga. “I just call it a placebo effect that [masks] make us feel good about ourselves.”

His comments come after President Trump, who is known for not wearing a mask consistently, tested positive for COVID-19 and had to be hospitalized last weekend. The head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, called face coverings the “the most powerful public health tool” the nation has against COVID-19 and that they might even provide better protection against it than a vaccine.

Kapenga's comments also contradict GOP leaders who oppose the statewide mask order but still encourage mask wearing.

"We need everyone to work together to contain the virus: follow CDC guidelines, wear a mask, wash your hands, and maintain social distancing," said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in a statement last week.

Wisconsin ranks as one of the worst in the country for the number of confirmed coronavirus cases.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers continue to support a lawsuit that seeks to strike down Evers' statewide mask mandate.

Speaker Vos and Senator Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald filed a brief on behalf of the legislature that supports a lawsuit aiming to eliminate the mask order. GOP leaders want the courts to revoke the mask mandate, yet they refuse to take action by voting down the order through the legislative process.

Kapenga said while he believes Evers' order is illegal and the legislature should strike it down, he thinks it would send a message to the public that the order is legal.

"I don't want to have to do it where we start setting a precedent by making it look like the governor's order is legal, that's the problem I have,” said Kapenga.

If the order were struck down, Kapenga supports not requiring schools to wear masks.

Democratic lawmakers wrote a letting to GOP leadership criticizing them for the lawsuit and for not passing any legislation during the last several months of the pandemic.

"Our state is in crisis, worsened by your inaction and by your desire to file lawsuits instead of passing bills that will make a difference in the lives of your constituents," said Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point). "We’ve found ourselves on the unenviable list of states forced to open a field hospital to handle the record-breaking surge of new cases of COVID-19. It is time to come off the sidelines and take action."

In August, Kapenga called Evers mask order a “scare tactic,” noting that as long as Wisconsin hospitals are not overwhelmed, he didn't think there was a need for Evers to issue one. That’s not the case now.

Health care workers are overwhelmed and hospitalizations have nearly tripled in the last month, according to the State Department of Health Services dashboard. 

When asked if he supports the governor's decision to open a field hospital as some health care facilities are overflowing with patients, Kapenga said he doesn’t trust the data that shows hospitals are in need.

“ICU beds are coming up close to capacity but I don’t know, is 80% of the ICU beds non-COVID? Are there people in ICU beds who don’t necessarily need to be there?” said Kapenga. “I have concerns that there's not good data out there and I can't make a good public policy decision when I'm only given 10% of the information."

DHS does share data on hospitalizations and how close to capacity the hospitals are. As of Saturday, it was at 84 percent.

Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm said multiple hospitals in the Fox Valley, Green Bay, and Wausau are at capacity for the number of patients they can treat.

"To be clear, things will get worse before they get better and our current surge will lead to even more hospitalizations," said Palm.

Palm also noted that health care facilities are suffering from staffing shortages as health care workers are not only getting sick on the job but also having to quarantine after testing positive.

50% Of Restaurants At Risk of Closing

Restaurants and bars had a difficult weekend adjusting to the governor's new emergency order that limits public gatherings to no more than 25 percent of a room or buildings total occupancy.

The Wisconsin Restaurant Association (WRA) said their industry is at risk of losing 50 percent of their businesses due to the new restrictions, calling it a devastating blow to an industry already struggling to stay afloat during this pandemic.

"At 25 percent capacity you will be faced with more layoffs, more people losing their jobs, and more people filing for unemployment unable to support their families," said Kristine Hillmer, president and CEO of WRA.

Last month, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association reported 37 percent of restaurants were expected to close within the next six months. Now she estimates that number will grow to 50 percent under the order.

The restaurant and bar industry believes it has being targeted by the governor's office and the state's health department for being the culprits of COVID-19 outbreaks, but Hillmer said the fault is not entirely on them.

“I’m not saying COVID is not (in restaurants)," Hiller said. "What we are seeing is someone maybe caught it elsewhere but we are not seeing it spread and that means the sanitation protocols are working."

Hiller challenged DHS to provide statistics that outbreaks are occurring in restaurants.

"If I'm wrong, I would certainly love to see the data where outbreaks are, but our restaurants have really worked overtime to do whatever they can to keep staff and customers safe, Hiller said.

Meanwhile, 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. For now, the release of names will be put on hold until the next hearing on Nov. 30.

Rural Counties Enter "Crisis Mode" in Fight Against COVID-19

A handful of rural counties in Wisconsin are issuing health alerts as the number of coronavirus cases in their communities continue to rise rapidly, and they're warning residents that they are experiencing a "significant and uncontrollable" spread of COVID-19.

Rock, Sauk, and Jefferson counties report they don't have enough staff to get in touch with people who have come in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.

Contact tracers are the ones who typically make these calls, but with high case counts, all three counties say they don't have enough staff to contact everyone who may have been exposed to a positive individual.

This is putting counties at risk of not being able to find the source or the virus and where it might have spread.

"We haven't stopped contact tracing but right now we are prioritizing schools, long-term care facilities, and business outbreaks," said Gail Scott, Director of Jefferson County Public Health Department.

Jefferson County used to only report a handful of cases a day, but in the last two weeks, Scott said cases increased by nearly 80 percent.

"People are getting tired and they want life to go back to normal but one day we reported 50 cases and that's an alarming day," said Scott. "While things started to trend in a better direction, we are still seeing crisis levels of cases."

Scott said her biggest concern heading into this week is whether or not their hospitals can manage an influx of cases which, in other parts of the state like Green Bay, Wausau, and the Fox Valley, are at capacity for the number of patients they can treat.

Starting on Wednesday, a field hospital located on the state fairgrounds in West Allis will start to accept patients for hospitals who are overwhelmed.

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Emilee Fannon

Capital Bureau Chief

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