MILWAUKEE—Wisconsin is once again facing COVID-19 turmoil after a potentially disastrous ruling from its highest court.
In a 4-3 decision by the court’s conservative majority, the state Supreme Court on Wednesday tossed Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer-at-Home” public health order, which he had recently sought to extend to May 26. It was almost fitting that Daniel Kelly, the conservative justice who was trounced in the state’s epidemiologically unwise in-person election on April 7, effectively cast the deciding vote.
It was the first time any state’s efforts at limiting business activity with a so-called lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus had been so dramatically cast aside. And it left business owners across the state caught between local officials desperate to keep COVID-19 cases in check and increasingly raucous right-wing protests.
“This ruling doesn’t help us one bit,” Valeri Lucks, founder and CEO of Milwaukee restaurant group Pie Inc., told The Daily Beast late Wednesday. “In fact, it makes it even more unclear on how businesses are to proceed safely and it puts us in the terrible position of figuring this out alone, of different businesses handling this different ways on different timelines, putting us all at greater risk. We will no longer have a unified response to this pandemic.”
The decision was not shocking given the conservative movement’s recent success at controlling virtually every lever of power in state government—at least until Evers and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul won their seats in the 2018 midterms. The justices also signaled their wishes fairly clearly in oral arguments last week, sometimes in extreme fashion, as when conservative Rebecca Bradley compared the state’s stay-at-home order tothe internment of Japanese-Americans.
State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, both Republicans, filed the suit aimed at ending the coronavirus lockdown on April 21. Since then, Wisconsin has seen its share of right-wing anti-lockdown protests, and while Evers’ stay-at-home orders remained popular among a supermajority of voters, resentment was bubbling.
“You’re being told to sit down and shut up because your opinion doesn’t matter,” one protest organizer said at the state capitol last week.
Still, Wednesday’s decision left the state with no real plan. Despite some initial reports suggesting the ruling would be stayed, all signs pointed to businesses across Wisconsin being limited only by their own wishes and any restrictions imposed by local authorities on reopening. And partisanship and urban-rural divides, just as they had in Georgia and other states that moved to reopen quickly, seemed likely to dictate which businesses opened and when.
The Tavern League of Wisconsin, the bar and restaurant lobbying group, encouraged bars to “open immediately,” and some wasted no time doing just that.
Nick’s Bar in Platteville—located in southwestern Wisconsin’s Grant County, which had seen at least 70 coronavirus cases and 9 deaths—went viral on Twitter Wednesday night with pictures and video (since deleted) of a packed house singing along to The Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.”
“We won’t know for 7-14 days whether there will be a significant impact of the increased interaction that people are having," cautioned John R. Raymond, Sr., MD, president and CEO of the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Still, he noted that there was already cause for concern: “Cell phone data from the past few weeks in Wisconsin [shows] that our mobility has increased very significantly,” Raymond told The Daily Beast. “Not back to normal levels, but it’s gone up enough that we should already have had some concern that there could be increased spread.”
Local governments continue to scramble to address the ruling, and everyone is making decisions on the fly. Dane County, Brown County, Kenosha County, the city of Racine, and the city of Appleton have each issued separate rulings that largely will continue to follow the governor’s previous order. And adding to the confusion in the state’s largest metro area, the city of Milwaukee now has different public health orders than the suburban communities located within Milwaukee County.
“Reopening with no plan or protocols is going to damage businesses and cause more harm than good,” said Francesca Hong, co-owner of Morris Ramen in Madison and a recently announced Democratic candidate for State Assembly. She added that her business was not changing plans and would continue to offer a limited menu with contact-free takeout.
Wisconsin has shown signs of controlling the COVID-19 outbreak in recent days, meeting five of the governor’s six criteria to begin the first phase of reopening (he opened most retail, limited to five customers, this week). The state also has the lowest number of coronavirus-related deaths per 100,000 people of any in the Midwest.
Still, at least 291 new cases were reported Wednesday, and more than 420 deaths have been tallied statewide. And many businesses will not be able to reopen—because of quickly enacted or reinforced local restrictions in cities like Madison and Milwaukee—or will see little incentive in doing so. In Marquette University Law School poll results released the day prior to the decision, only 42 percent of Wisconsinites said they’d be ready to dine in at a restaurant.
“We have already pivoted to try and survive with the shutdown,” Hong said, adding of the Supreme Court, “They are hurting businesses by putting customer and staff safety at risk.”
Along with those in liberal urban strongholds like Madison’s Dane County, officials in Brown County—which has by far the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases in the state after an outbreak at a JBS meatpacking plant in Green Bay—moved to keep lockdown in effect.
For his part, Gov. Evers said in a statement that through the ruling “Republican legislators have convinced 4 justices to throw our state into chaos.”
Evers has faced an impressive array of obstacles from the Republican-led state legislature during the pandemic. In addition to refusing to delay elections last month, the legislature stonewalled initial COVID-19 relief proposals. Although the governor released comprehensive bills in late March and early April, lawmakers delayed action until after the April 7 election. The delay proved costly, as the state missed out on $25 million in federal funding for unemployment insurance.
The legislature has not passed a bill since.