By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers and his staff pledged to keep Badger State businesses open during the first waves of the COVID-19 outbreak.
They went back on that promise within days, history shows.
Evers, Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm and the governor’s legal counsel led a March 16 Teleconference to update the status of Wisconsin’s COVID-19 response. That was the day the governor issued Executive Order #4, prohibiting mass gatherings of 50 people or more.
During the meeting, Evers noted the goal was to “slow the spread” of the coronavirus and “allow health care facilities to meet the needs of patients.”
Evers noted the order “does, however, allow restaurants, bars and other businesses to remain open so long as they follow guidelines on social distancing,” and allow fewer than 50 patrons or 50 percent capacity— whatever is less.
Mainstream media reporters, like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Patrick Marley, were really pushing a statewide lockdown of businesses.
“Why 50 as opposed to an outright ban?” Marley asked the governor. “I’m wondering if that will do enough. Would you still consider a total ban at a later point?”
Evers didn’t answer the question regarding next steps. He did say his administration was following CDC guidelines and making them a mandate.
Palm said social distancing made it possible to keep restaurants and other “nonessential” businesses open. If customers can remain 6-feet apart, Palm said, health officials did not think it was necessary “to do an outright ban.”
“We are hopeful this is a middle ground, a good first step to be really clear about social distancing to allow businesses to not shut down,” she said.
Eight days later, Evers issued his Safer at Home order, closing workplaces and locking down the state.
Then the administration moved the goalposts from ensuring health care capacity to effectively eradicating COVID-19. To be sure, the number of virus cases spiked in March and April, but not anywhere near to the degree state health officials projected it would.
It was clear the administration pivoted quickly from localized quarantining to complete lockdown. They banned travel, shut down businesses, paralyzed Wisconsin’s economy, closed places of worship without regard to basic civil liberties. Eventually, in May, the Wisconsin Supreme Court called the administration on its abuse of power.
At the time, Palm only hinted at the extent of the government overreach to come.
“In the coming days and weeks there are going to be more disruptions in your lives,” she said during the March 16 media call.
The Capitol press corps sure sounded interested in punishing anyone who dared violate Evers’ initial social distancing orders. A WTMJ-TV reporter really wanted to know what the state planned to do with COVID “criminals.”
“State law does provide for punishments if people do not comply with the order, both in terms of fines and imprisonment,” Ryan Nilsestuen, Evers’ legal counsel said.
“Who is going to enforce this, to make sure nobody is violating it?” Marley from the Journal Sentinel asked.
Nilsestuen said enforcement would be up to local governments.