At the direction of Gov. Tony Evers, the state Department of Health Services this week issued a massive 16-page order directing nonessential businesses to close and Wisconsin residents to stay at home and avoid nonessential travel.
The order went into effect Wednesday morning and is to last 30 days until Friday, April 24, though the governor could issue other orders superseding it.
As of this past Wednesday, the sweeping order was the longest in the Midwest, prompting Republicans to question the data the governor used to impose such restrictions on free movement and activities. Many Democrats, however, applauded Evers's order to stay at home, ban private gatherings in private residences, and close all nonessential businesses.
The two critical components of the order involve the governor's directive for people to stay in their homes as much as possible and for nonessential businesses to close. Essential businesses that can stay open include grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stories, gas stations, and laundromats, among others.
Likewise, people can leave their homes to go to those businesses and they can go outside to walk and exercise so long as they maintain physical distance of at least six feet from other people.
Evers says the order isn't a lockdown, but a safer-at-home directive. That said, the order is an extraordinary exercise of power by the governor to order people on the conduct of their lives, telling residents what they can and cannot do.
"All individuals present within the state of Wisconsin are ordered to stay at home or at their place of residence, with exceptions . . ." Evers directed.
The governor also banned all social engagements, including such things as the ability of residents to invite neighbors over to their home for dinner. That also means no sleepovers, play dates, visitors in your home, or large family dinners, the governor specified.
"All public and private gatherings of any number of people that are not part of a single household or living unit are prohibited, except for the limited purposes expressly permitted in this order," the directive states.
Evers said he knew the Covid-19 outbreak had been difficult and had disrupted the lives of people across the state.
"Issuing a Safer at Home order isn't something I thought we'd have to do and it's not something I take lightly, but here's the bottom line: folks need to start taking this seriously," he said. "Each and every one of us has to do our part to help slow the spread of Covid-19 so we can flatten the curve to ensure our doctors, nurses, and health-care workers have the opportunity to do their important work. Let's all do our part and work together."
Reaction to the governor's order broke along ideological lines.
Conservatives called for a balanced approach toward the public health emergency and the now emerged economic emergency, saying the latter could not be sacrificed for the former.
Republicans also criticized Evers for a lack of transparency and candor. State Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg) said the governor had left Wisconsinites in the dark about the data he used to make such a severe decision.
"We cannot shut down life," Stroebel said. "While Gov. Evers's new shelter-in-place order does have an end date of April 24, the public does not know of any objective metrics that are informing the policy decisions. This 30-day order is significantly longer than all other Midwestern states, whose orders ranged from 12 to 20 days. If Gov. Evers's new order was based only on the science, why is Wisconsin the outlier in the length of its restrictions? Is there balance between sweeping government mandates denying our freedoms and liberties and the impact of these actions on Covid-19 in Wisconsin?"
Stroebel said a prolonged shutdown would be ruinous to Wisconsin small businesses, the state's economy, and Wisconsinites' quality of life.
"Both President Trump and New York Gov. Cuomo have spoken publicly about having a plan to return to work," he said. "We should be doing the same to give Wisconsinites some stability and a light at the end of the tunnel."
Rep. Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) had a different take, saying the governor's order was both warranted and necessary.
"There's no way around it, the weeks ahead will be a difficult time for all of us as we self-isolate with our households and wait out the Covid-19 storm," Neubauer said. "But in the face of Covid-19, we all must sacrifice together, so we can protect our vulnerable neighbors and essential workers who can't stay home. The Safer at Home Order is a critical step in keeping our community safe and preventing the loss of life through the Covid-19 pandemic."
Editorially, prior to the governor's order, The Cap Times in Madison was blunt in calling for a complete lockdown, albeit one that the news outlet said should respect civil liberties and use "suitably Midwestern language."
"But we believe that Wisconsin is going to need to take the next big step when it comes to educating and organizing this state of 5.8 million people to get ahead of this pandemic," the editorial read. "That means that Gov. Tony Evers must follow the lead of governors in New York, California and Illinois - states that have implemented lockdowns in order to slow the spread of a virus that could overwhelm our health care system."
The lockdown, the newspaper opined, should be "framed" in a way that fits with the state's needs and values.
"But the governor should not hesitate to refer to it as a lockdown, as that will emphasize the seriousness of the circumstance and the absolutely necessity of quick and decisive action in a perilous moment," the newspaper wrote in its editorial.
In a column, GOP U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin cautioned against such an approach, saying the temporary shut down of the economy was a necessary tactic but one that could not be sustained.
"The simple fact is: Wisconsin must work," Gallagher wrote.
The congressman called for a strict but strategic quarantine - encouraging those who are over 65 and who have underlying health conditions to quarantine - while those less vulnerable needed to continue to work.
Businesses, not government, should take the lead, Gallagher wrote.
"This means our businesses, small and large, must adapt their operations to the threat: continue to telework where possible, engage in social distancing, and maintain proper hand washing and sanitizing as if our lives depended on it (because they do)," he wrote. "The government can enact policies and make recommendations, but the bottom line is we need businesses to be responsible for themselves, their employees and customers."
Gallagher called for a balanced approach to the two emergencies.
"I am not saying 'the cure is worse than the disease,'" he wrote. "I am saying it is unrealistic to choose between economic devastation on the one hand and millions of deaths on the other. Wisconsinites know that is a false choice. There has to be a middle ground that takes our livelihoods, both physical and economic, into account."
More specifics of the order
Below are some of the more general provisions of the governor's 16-page order. However, they are not all inclusive and residents should read the entire order at https://evers.wi.gov/Documents/COVID19/EMO12-SaferAtHome.pdf.
Under the order, a number of businesses beyond the obvious ones such as grocery stores and gas stations qualify as essential services that can stay open.
They include businesses that sell, manufacture, or supply other essential businesses and government functions with the support or supplies necessary to operate, including computers; audio and video electronics; household appliances; IT and telecommunication equipment; hardware; paint; flat glass; electrical, plumbing, and heating materials; construction materials and equipment; sanitary equipment; personal hygiene products; food, food additives, ingredients, and components; and medical and orthopedic equipment.
Firearm and ammunition suppliers and retailers can also stay open, as well as those that sell optics and photography equipment; diagnostic; food and beverages; chemicals; paper and paper products; and soaps and detergents.
Stores that sell groceries and medicine, including food pantries and convenience stores, can stay open. Restaurants are closed but can stay open for delivery and take-out orders. Bars are likewise closed but can stay open for carryout sales of alcohol beverages and food.
Funeral establishments can operate, so long as social distancing requirements are followed and there are fewer than 10 people in a room or confined space. Media companies can also perform their business, as can banks and other financial service providers.
The critical trades, including plumbers, electricians, and carpenters, can continue to work their trades.
Mail and delivery services can carry on, as can businesses that sell supplies for people to work from home, and laundromats. Airlines, taxis, transportation providers such as Uber and Lyft, vehicle rental services, and other private, public, and commercial transportation are considered essential businesses.
So are home-based care and service providers, such as those that provide home-based care for seniors, adults, children, and/or people with disabilities, substance use disorders, and/or mental illness, including caregivers or nannies who may travel to the child's home to provide care, and other in-home services including meal delivery.
Professional services, including but not limited to legal, accounting, insurance, and real estate services can operate. Those services are directed to use technology to avoid meeting in person, including virtual meetings, teleconference, and remote work (i.e., work from home).
Manufacturing companies, distributors, and supply chain companies producing and supplying essential products and services can remain open, as can businesses providing critical labor union services. Hotels and motels can stay open if they close swimming pools, hot tubs, and exercise facilities, and prohibit guests from congregating in lobbies or other common areas.
For all businesses allowed to operate, the governor's order requires social distancing in the workplace, the use of technology for virtual meetings where possible, and allowing workers to work from home when possible.
For individuals, essential travel is allowed. For the purposes of the order, essential travel means any travel related to the provision of or access to essential activities, special situations, essential government functions, essential businesses and operations, or minimum basic operations.
Residents can travel to care for the elderly, minors, dependents, persons with disabilities, or other vulnerable persons. Travel is allowed to or from educational institutions for purposes of receiving materials for distance learning, for receiving meals, or any other related services.
Residents can travel to return to a place of residence from outside the jurisdiction, and any travel required by law enforcement or court order is allowed.
Travel required for non-residents to return to their place of residence outside Wisconsin is permitted, but residents are strongly encouraged to verify that their transportation out of Wisconsin remains available and functional prior to beginning such travel.
Individuals can also leave their homes to engage in activities or perform tasks essential to their health and safety, or to the health and safety of their family or household members, including pets.
Residents can also move about to obtain necessary services or supplies for themselves and their family or household members, or to deliver those services or supplies to others, to perform work at essential businesses or operations, or to take care of others.
As for outdoor activities, residents can visit public and state parks, provided they comply with social distancing requirements, and they can engage in walking, biking, hiking, or running. The order does not specifically include hunting and fishing, though it stresses that its list of allowable activities is not all-inclusive.
On Tuesday, however, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources clarified in a tweet that fishing would be allowed: "Wisconsin's waters are open," the DNR tweeted. "You can fish if you have a license. Normal season regulations apply."
But the agency advised staying close to home and left open the question of how far people could travel: "The intent of the Safer at Home order is to keep people close to their homes and within their communities. Head out and enjoy your time outdoors, but please stay close to home."
The same was true of hunting and the upcoming turkey season, the DNR advised.
"You can absolutely still hunt during turkey season," the agency tweeted. "We just ask that you stay close to home and would recommend hunting alone. It's best to limit your interactions with those who do not live in your household and to practice social distancing."
Finally, state and local governments can continue to carry out essential government functions and services. The order advises local governments to consult with Department of Justice's Office of Open Government for advice on complying with open meetings statutes.
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
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