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Wisconsin Assembly ends statewide mask mandate despite objections from health experts

UPDATE 3:07 p.m.: On Thursday afternoon Gov. Tony Evers issued another emergency order requiring face coverings in public. The article below was written before that announcement.

Wisconsin's Legislature has ended Gov. Tony Evers' mask mandate, making Wisconsin one of the only states in the country without any statewide measures addressing the coronavirus pandemic. The change will take effect Friday, but it will not affect local mask ordinances such as Milwaukee's, Racine's and Dane County's, which will remain in place.

Republicans in the state Assembly on Thursday passed the joint resolution overturning Evers' emergency order mandating masks, one week after the Republican-controlled state Senate voted for the resolution. The move came over the objections of health experts, who argued that overturning the mandate will endanger lives and prolong the pandemic. Along with physical distancing, masks are one of the most effective measures for preventing the spread of the virus.

Thursday's vote also came as a more infectious strain of the virus spreads across the country. That variant, which was reported in Wisconsin earlier this month, is expected to become the dominate strain of the virus in the state within months.

The impact of reversing the mask mandate could also be felt beyond hospitals. The Journal Sentinel reported that the move could cut off low-income Wisconsinites from nearly $50 million in monthly federal food assistance, with senior citizens and workers left unemployed by the pandemic among those cut off. The state Senate will meet tomorrow to vote on a bill that would try to prevent that from happening.

More than 55 groups representing health care workers, educators, churches and business owners registered in opposition to the resolution overturning the mandate. No organization registered in support of it.

"Overturning the mask order will slow down the cause of getting all Wisconsin school children back in school for in-person instruction," the Wisconsin Retired Educators Association wrote in a statement. One of just two Republican state senators to vote against ending the mandate, Dale Kooyenga of Brookfield, made a similar argument on the chamber floor last week, saying that safely reopening schools should be the state's top priority.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos argued Thursday's vote wasn't really about masks | Screenshot via Wiseye.com

But Republicans argued that Evers overreached his authority by repeatedly extending his emergency order without the Legislature's approval.

While some lawmakers who voted for the resolution cited misleading claims questioning the efficacy of masks, others like Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos have said they supported wearing masks and believed residents would continue to voluntarily wear them without a mandate. Vos recently produced an ad encouraging residents to wear masks, but said his vote to end the statewide mask mandate did not undermine that message.

Vos on Thursday framed the vote as not about masks, but about executive overreach. “When people want to impose things because only one person believes they have the power to do so, that’s where the whole system falls apart,” he argued.

Rep. Jill Billings (D - LaCrosse) spoke of the 2.4 million people who have died of Covid-19 across the world | Screenshot via Wiseye.com

But Democrats argued that ending the mask mandate robbed the state of one of its most effective tools combating the pandemic. "What is your plan? You can't just open us up for a free-for-all," Democratic Rep. Jill Billings said in remarks directed at Vos.

Nearly 6,000 Wisconsinites have died from Covid-19 since last spring. The state has confirmed more than 540,000 cases of the virus.

Although public health messaging on masks was inconsistent in the early days of the pandemic last March, health organizations including the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control now agree on their importance.

The Centers for Disease Control continues to advise that "people age 2 and older should wear masks in public settings and when around people who don’t live in their household.​"