MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) — A year ago when the pandemic began changing people’s daily lives, the government began playing a larger role in making decisions in attempts to reduce the spread of the virus.
From issuing executive orders to distributing funds to help those impacted by COVID-19, state and local governments had to make some tough calls.
A lot happened in March 2020. On March 12, Governor Tony Evers declared a statewide public health emergency, a day later he ordered K-12 schools to close temporarily — then eventually for the remainder of the school year.
Another indicator that Wisconsinites would have to adjust to a new way of living during the pandemic came on St. Patrick’s Day, when Evers ordered bars and restaurants to close. It came in response to the number of confirmed positive cases increasing by more than 50% in one day, from 47 to 72.
It was terrible timing for the serving industry adjusting to carryout and delivery only, but it was also difficult for many others as it marked the beginning of restrictions and lockdowns.
“That was one point in time when I knew that the world would be changing,” Gov. Evers said. “It was clear things would be different for a long time.”
A month later, on April 24, Gov. Evers signed his ‘Safer at Home’ order closing non-essential businesses and encouraging people to only leave their home for groceries, medicine, and a walk outside.
During this time, most Republicans didn’t fight back against Evers’ decisions.
“When the pandemic first started, I think it made sense to be very cautious because everyone was dealing with something completely abnormal,” said State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) and chair of the Assembly Health Committee.
After a few days, the GOP pushback began.
“Being cautious for the first 30 to 60 days was probably important,” Sanfelippo said. “But did it rise to the point where we needed to shut down as many businesses as we did?”
The ‘Stay at Home’ order wasn’t popular among Republican leaderships and nearly three weeks after it was enacted, the State Supreme Court struck it down. This left local governments to decide whether they wanted to issue restrictions — creating a patchwork across the state.
Dane County issued their own almost immediately after the high court’s decisions, Milwaukee soon followed with mask mandates and closing bars, restaurants and other non-essential businesses.
“This was the start of a political divide in the state,” said Gov. Evers.
“The politics of it all were frankly driven for the national level, and that leader [President Trump] is now gone,” said Evers. “Having Republicans be irritated or doing what I can to save lives, I’m going to take saving lives any day.”
Since the pandemic began, Evers has issued over 50 executive orders related to COVID-19. Most of them were reissuing the same order such as requiring face masks, but Republicans have a problem with how Evers issued orders back to back.
“We could never have those discussions with the governor because he just kept acting, and we could react and that’s why we have the lawsuits in place,” said Senate President Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield).
The governor has the power to issue as many executive orders as he wants, but Republicans argue once the order expires after the 60-day limit, it can only be extended with approval from the Legislature. They also believe Evers can’t issue similar orders, such as requiring face masks, related to the same event, in this case, the pandemic.
The State Supreme Court could decide any day now the fate of Gov. Evers’ ability to make decisions during the pandemic. If the high court rules Evers’ back-to-back health orders are unlawful, it would force him to work with the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“This virus has been around for over a year. It’s not an emergency any longer, maybe a crisis, not an emergency,” said Sanfelippo. “We still don’t need to be doing things under emergency powers.”
Through the political disagreements, both sides agree the pandemic shed light on some important issues such as inequalities in health care when it came to finding care and a vaccine, the need to expand broadband as a majority of the workforce was forced to work at home and achievement gaps in education with students not in the classroom.
“We’re really going to have to step back and deal with the problems and issues in the education system, and that’s going to be highlighted by the significant detrimental and mental impact that COVID has produced,” said Kapenga.
While political beliefs can interfere at times when finding compromise, Gov. Evers and Republicans are hopeful they can find common ground on helping the state recover from the pandemic.
“This has been a horrible impact on people’s lives and we have to make sure not just getting back to the way it was a year or a year and a half ago, but getting back and then moving our state forward,” Evers said.