MADISON, Wis. – After successfully suing Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to force him to work with the Legislature to craft a plan to control the spread of the coronavirus, Republican lawmakers now suggest they don't need any new guidelines for the time being.
As Wisconsinites try to understand what daily life is supposed to look like now that the state Supreme Court has eliminated the governor's stay-at-home order, Evers said GOP legislative leaders in a Thursday phone conversation appeared comfortable with leaving it up to city and county officials to figure out their own rules.
And Republican state Rep. Joan Ballweg of Markesan, the co-chairwoman of the committee that has veto power over any new coronavirus-related rules written by Evers, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel she doesn’t believe state rules are needed for the immediate situation.
“Do we need statewide rules for the run-of-the-mill opening of restaurants or small retailers? I don’t think so,” Ballweg said. “It’s been shown what’s been deemed essential businesses before, the non-essential businesses can be doing the same things that they were and work in a safe manner.”
Instead of immediately putting into effect any rules, she said officials should work on ones that could be implemented if there were a surge in coronavirus cases. She didn't say what those rules should look like.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican from Rochester, told the Associated Press there could be no statewide order or guidelines in place if Evers and Republicans can't agree on them and signaled they didn't need to be enacted quickly.
"I hope we can work together to put some broad parameters on the books if it's necessary," he said. "But I also feel like we have a lot of those tools already in place."
Officials in at least 12 cities and counties have issued their own orders placing restrictions on businesses and gatherings each with varying expiration dates.
The rest of the state doesn't have any restrictions, leaving a patchwork of rules that GOP leaders hadn't previously called for but are now embracing.
"I thought both leaders felt very comfortable with the idea (of a patchwork) and unconcerned about what I believe is the massive confusion that will exist without a statewide approach," Evers said. "Apparently they believe different rules are OK. I can't imagine another state that is in this predicament."
Stay-at-home orders:Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling highlights widening US debate on pandemic
The restrictions are being lifted after the spread of coronavirus has slowed in recent weeks. There has been a recent uptick in the number of cases but a decrease in the percentage of positive cases.
As of Thursday, 11,275 people had been infected by the virus in Wisconsin and 434 people have died.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, a Republican from Kaukauna, in a video statement urged his constituents not to expect daily life to return to normal overnight and to check with local health officials on appropriate guidance to reopen businesses.
County leader: ‘State failed us'
But some local officials are frustrated there are no longer state rules to use to navigate the ebbs and flows of the virus outbreak. In Brown County, where cases of the virus have skyrocketed in recent weeks, the county's top leader said the "state failed us."
“We were hoping for state guidance in terms of how 72 counties were to operate going into the future." Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach said. "Unfortunately, we did not receive that guidance.”
Members of the state's federal delegation also sought guidance for the state. Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson urged GOP leaders and Evers to set guidelines quickly.
"I have always believed the vast majority of our economy should be deemed essential and continue to operate with appropriate safety measures," Johnson tweeted. "I urge the state legislature and @GovEvers to recognize this fact and work together to implement a set of guidelines that lets people start to go back to work and resume their lives in as safe a manner as possible.
Court ruling:Wisconsin Supreme Court strikes down governor’s stay-at-home order
And Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Kind said “there is a lot of confusion surrounding this ruling” among his constituents with little guidance about what comes next, or what the new rules and expectations are.
“If this suddenly becomes a free for all, a wild, wild west situation in Wisconsin, we’re going to have huge outbreaks, which will entail having to close things down again,” said Kind, who represents a largely rural district in southwestern Wisconsin.
Kind called on the state’s political leaders to “come together quickly, stay united and give people the certainty they need right now.”
Trump praises court ruling
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump praised the high court's ruling, saying "the people want to get on with their lives."
Evers planned to submit a scope statement for new coronavirus rules on Thursday. That statement will be formally published Monday and under state law the Evers administration will be barred from doing any work on the rules for the next 10 days. After that, state officials can begin writing the rules.
Once they’re completed, the Republican-controlled Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules can block them in whole or in part. Any changes to the rules would require the lengthy process to start over.
No state rules will be in place in the meantime.
Fate of local orders uncertain
There are outstanding questions about what to expect in the following weeks after the Supreme Court sided with Republicans in their lawsuit to strike down the governor's order, including whether the local orders could be challenged.
In an emailed newsletter, the Wisconsin Counties Association said the local health orders placing restrictions on businesses and gatherings are made under the same set of state laws the governor's now-defunct order used as its basis.
"As a result, it is unclear whether a local health order would, in the Court’s view, suffer from the same deficiencies that caused the Court to invalidate the Safer at Home Order," the group told county officials.
Jeffrey Mandell, a Madison attorney who has represented Evers on some matters, said he believes local officials still possess broad powers to issue health orders that mirror the one knocked down by the court.
The court found that the Evers administration must follow a complex rulemaking process to put his plans in place. But local officials aren't required to use that same process and Mandell said that gives them the ability to issue their own orders, he said.
While lawmakers can quickly block state rules, they don't have an easy way to block local orders.
But the Supreme Court’s decision also found the state’s order was unlawful because it was too sweeping, said Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. That could spell trouble for local orders that are similarly broad, he said.
Exactly how far local officials can go remains unclear, both Mandell and Esenberg said.
“I don’t think anything but litigation could answer that question,” Esenberg said.
Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul said he expected legal challenges to stay-at-home orders issued by local officials. He called Wednesday's decision a "historically bad court ruling that is going to have severe negative consequences for Wisconsinites."
Kaul urged Republican lawmakers to offer their own plan to fight the pandemic after they successfully sidelined Evers' proposal.
"We’ve actually seen very little from our Legislature since the coronavirus pandemic has occurred, but it’s time for them to step up because we need a plan as we’re in the middle of an epidemic," Kaul said. "We can’t just leave this to chance and hope that the best happens. We’ve seen that approach at the federal level and it’s been disastrous."
Contributing: Craig Gilbert of the Journal Sentinel, Haley BeMiller of the Green Bay Press-Gazette
Follow Molly Beck on Twitter @MollyBeck.