Doyle decries Republicans’ refusal to require masks at Wisconsin Legislature’s inauguration
Doyle: 'This ceremony is not worth the health of our loved ones or our community.
MADISON, Wis. (WKBT) — State Rep. Steve Doyle, D-Onalaska, lamented the fact that the Republican majority in the Wisconsin Legislature refused Democrats’ request for a requirement to wear masks during their inauguration Monday.
“I have always enjoyed inauguration, ever since my first election,” Doyle wrote in his summary report on the day. “Unfortunately, my colleagues and I were unable to participate. After requesting — and subsequently being denied — the most basic safety requirements, we all made the difficult decision not to participate in an event that could spread this virus.
“This ceremony is not worth the health of our loved ones or our community,” Doyle wrote.
On the same day Democrats introduced a bill to address the COVID-19 pandemic, Doyle said, “Assembly Republicans held an in-person, mask-less, ceremonial event.” Mask wearing was inconsistent among Republicans.
Doyle’s chagrin was not the only voice crying in the wilderness on a day when legislatures nationwide returned to session. Many began meeting remotely, but like Wisconsin, some Republican-controlled statehouses, from Montana to Pennsylvania, conducted at least part of their sessions in person — without requiring masks.
Public health officials say that move endangers the safety of other lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists, the public and the journalists responsible for holding politicians accountable.
The risk is more than mere speculation: An ongoing Associated Press tally has found that more than 230 state lawmakers across the country have contracted COVID-19 and at least seven have died.
For example, the Republican majority in the Montana Legislature shot down Democratic requests to hold the session remotely or delay it until vaccines are more widely available. In a continuing quest for safety, Democrats asked for requirements on masks and virus testing, which Republicans also rejected.
“If the session is held without public health precautions, it is highly likely that the virus will spread in that environment,” said Drenda Niemann, health officer in Lewis and Clark County, Montana, which includes the state capital of Helena.
“And it’s highly likely that we’ll see serious illness and — God forbid — deaths come from that,” Niemann said.
In Wisconsin, Democrats also acted remotely on legislation, with Doyle noting, “From my Capitol office in Madison, I virtually joined my Democratic colleagues to introduce a bill to help our state with this global pandemic. As our state faces this momentous challenge, we cannot afford to wait to introduce, or to pass, this legislation.”
State Rep. Jill Billings, D-La Crosse, echoed the urgency in the Democratic initiative, saying, “I have never stopped advocating for COVID-19 protections and economic recovery initiatives for our state.
“The legislation introduced today is a continuation of this action and a strong proposal that the newly inaugurated Legislature should review and vote on swiftly,” Billings said.
The bill, LRB 0993/1, features many of the proposals Gov. Tony Evers introduced in November and expands it, Billings said.
The legislation includes language from the Health Care Heroes legislation (2019-2020 LRB 6233) that accepts federal Medicaid expansion dollars and provides other protection for frontline health-care workers.
“The bill also provides for continued COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and vaccine distribution, as well as flexibility for school districts, improvements to the unemployment insurance system and economic relief for businesses,” Billings said, adding that many measures also had been included in the bipartisan legislation passed in April 2020, known as Act 185.
“Nothing should be holding the legislature back from meeting virtually to discuss and pass this legislation,” Billings said.
But in Montana, instead of addressing COVID-19 guidelines ahead of the session, Republicans decided to address them after lawmakers convene by creating a panel that will meet regularly to consider updating policies. The Senate president pro tem, Republican Jason Ellsworth, said the panel “allows us to be more fluid with the situation” and “allows for our personal freedoms and our responsibilities.”
Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature also passed a COVID-19 relief bill the first day of the session. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said it will pass later in the week. But the measure got a lukewarm response from the Democratic Evers.
Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback did not say whether the governor would sign or veto the measure. But she said it is “disappointing” that lawmakers weren’t taking up what Evers proposed.
The divergent approaches to the virus — with Republican lawmakers mostly rejecting mask mandates and lockdown measures and Democrats urging a more cautious approach — generally mirrors the attitudes of Americans nationwide.
That contrast was reflected over the holidays, when millions of people hit the roads and airports despite pleas from health officials to avoid travel and family gatherings to help contain the virus, which has claimed more than 350,000 American lives.
Some legislatures are trying to strike a balance between conducting business in person and protecting against the disease.
The 400-member New Hampshire House plans to hold its first session day Wednesday with a drive-in event at the University of New Hampshire in what acting Speaker Sherm Packard called the body’s “most risk-mitigated session” yet during the pandemic.
The House clerk and speaker will conduct business from a heated platform, and members can watch and listen via a screen or through their car radios. Microphones will be brought to their windows for questions and debate, and voting will be conducted via electronic devices.
New Hampshire House Speaker Dick Hinch, a Republican, died from COVID-19 on Dec. 9, a week after being sworn in during an outdoor gathering at UNH. Democrats have pushed for remote gatherings.
Legislatures in Alaska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Washington are requiring masks, but the requirement is not being enforced in Pennsylvania. Lack of enforcement is a concern for news outlets that have to balance their ability to cover events with the safety of their reporters.
“If we start getting into a high-profile issue and there’s a scrum of reporters shouting questions to a legislator who’s unmasked, it couldn’t be a worse situation,” said Paula Knudsen Burke, with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Pennsylvania.
In Idaho, where lawmakers are not required to wear masks, Melissa Davlin of Idaho Public Television said media outlets are trying to keep reporters safe while also ensuring adequate access to lawmakers, many of whom are not adhering to the same public safety guidelines as newsrooms.
Republicans in the Ohio House have blocked efforts to enforce a mask mandate, despite the fact that more than a dozen lawmakers there have tested positive for COVID-19.
Incoming Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman was to be sworn into office from his home Monday after testing positive for COVID-19. Huffman experienced mild symptoms and will return to the statehouse after a quarantine period, spokesman John Fortney said.
In conservative Wyoming, where Republican Gov. Mark Gordon did not issue a mask mandate until early December, lawmakers plan to convene virtually Jan. 12 to hear the governor’s State of the State address.
Legislative leaders will decide later whether to begin a virtual session in February or hold an in-person session starting in March, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported.
Wyoming Republican Rep. Roy Edwards died a day before Election Day of what his family later confirmed was COVID-19. Edwards had opposed public health restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus during his campaign.
In Wisconsin, Doyle underscored the severity of the pandemic, saying, “We have seen nearly 5,000 Wisconsinites lose their lives to this virus. Less than 20% of our hospital beds and less than 20% of our ICU beds are available. We have confirmed the new, more contagious strain of this virus has reached our shores.”
Doyle decried that “this inauguration turned into a potential super spreader event. Holding this session in person when it could be virtual — without even a mask mandate — is the definition of recklessness. There are workers who do not have the luxury of working remotely, and we owe it to them to do everything in our power to limit the spread.”