Wisconsin governor restricts public indoor gatherings

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued a new order Tuesday limiting the size of public indoor gatherings as COVID-19 spreads.
Wisconsin Department of Health Services via AP file

Gov. Tony Evers' administration issued a new order Tuesday limiting the size of public indoor gatherings as COVID-19 spreads unchecked across the state, in a move certain to alienate Republicans as well as tavern and restaurant owners.

Wisconsin has become one of the worst hot spots for the disease over the last month, with experts attributing the spike in cases to colleges and schools reopening and general fatigue about wearing masks and social distancing. The state ranked third nationwide this week in the number of new cases per capita, with 548 cases per 100,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins University.

State health officials reported 2,020 new cases on Tuesday and 18 additional deaths. The state has now seen 136,379 cases and 1,399 deaths since the pandemic began.

The order from state Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm, a member of Evers' cabinet, limits public indoor gatherings to 25 percent of the room or building's capacity. Gatherings in indoor spaces without an occupancy limit will be limited to 10 people. The order does not apply to colleges, schools, churches, polling locations, political rallies and outdoor venues.

The limits take effect on Friday and run through Nov. 6. Violators could face forfeitures of up to $500.

“We’re in a crisis right now and need to immediately change our behavior to save lives,” Evers said in a statement.

The order could spark new legal challenges for the Democratic governor, who has faced continued resistance and litigation from Republicans since the pandemic began. After he issued a statewide stay-at-home order in March, the GOP convinced the conservative-leaning state Supreme Court to strike down that order in May.

Conservatives also are challenging Evers' mask mandate in court; a ruling could come any day.

The new capacity order will have a significant impact on taverns and restaurants, especially those that lack outdoor patios. Both sectors pushed back hard against Evers’ stay-at-home order this spring.

A message left with the Wisconsin Restaurant Association wasn’t immediately returned. Scott Stenger, a lobbyist for the state’s powerful tavern league, said he hadn’t seen the order yet but wants to understand how it can mesh with the May ruling from the state Supreme Court.

Kurt Bauer, president of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business group, said in a statement that businesses have taken “countless steps” to protect employees, customers and the public from COVID-19. They aren't responsible for the recent spike in cases and shouldn't face capacity restrictions, he said.

“Our state's employers have been true leaders when it comes to health and safety, and this order will just serve to economically punish them when they can least afford it," he said.

Aides for the Legislature’s top Republicans, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Evers' attorney, Ryan Nilsestuen, told reporters during a video conference that the capacity restrictions should survive a legal challenge. He noted that the Supreme Court's ruling in May did not touch on DHS' statutory authority to limit gatherings.

He also noted that the court's conservative majority has shrunk from 5-2 to 4-3 since May, and conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn voted with his liberal colleagues to uphold the stay-at-home order, signaling he may support the gatherings order.

“At the end of the day, doing orders and having them challenged in court maybe makes for great theater," Evers told reporters during a video conference moments after Palm issued the order. “But it frankly does nothing in making sure people are safer in the state of Wisconsin.”

Separately, Evers' administration sought to highlight another announcement Tuesday that it was making available another $100 million in federal coronavirus aid to small businesses. About half of that money will go to businesses most impacted by the pandemic, including bars, restaurants and beauty salons, the administration said.

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