Evers: Capitol will stay closed, state workers to wear masks

MADISON, Wis. —  According to the Associated Press, the Wisconsin Capitol building will not reopen next week, as had been planned, and state employees will have to wear masks whenever they’re working indoors to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Tony Evers’ administration announced Wednesday.

The Capitol building has been closed to the public since Evers issued a stay-at-home order in March. The state Supreme Court struck down that order in May and Evers’ administration had planned to reopen the building Monday. But infection rates have been climbing in Wisconsin over the last two weeks and the administration announced that the Capitol will remain closed indefinitely.

The administration also announced that starting Monday, all state employees must wear masks whenever they’re inside a state facility, including offices, parking garages, elevators and bathrooms, or waiting in line to enter a state facility. They also must wear one whenever they’re inside any enclosed building on state business.

Molly Vidal, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Administration, said the mask order in state buildings applies only to executive branch employees. That means legislators and their staffers are exempt.

Dane County officials on Tuesday ordered all residents to wear masks when indoors starting Monday.

Wisconsin’s tally of confirmed coronavirus cases rose by 598 on Wednesday, to 33,154 since the pandemic started. The state’s COVID-19 death toll rose by two, to 807. Of the test results reported Wednesday, 5.6% were positive, up from 3.9% on Tuesday.

Nearly 80% of those who contracted the disease have recovered, leaving 6,037 active cases in the state. Wisconsin’s population is about 5.8 million.

Meanwhile Wednesday, the president of Wisconsin’s chamber of commerce repeated his call for the state Department of Health Services not to publish the names of businesses traced to two or more confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce President Kurt Bauer last week asked the DHS to back off its plans to make the names public. A department spokeswoman said Tuesday that there were no plans to publish them, but agency Secretary Andrea Palm appeared to hedge during a news conference when she said there were no plans to do that “this week.”

Bauer said releasing the names could be “potentially defamatory.” Dozens of local chambers of commerce as well as trade associations, including WMC, sent Evers a letter Wednesday asking him not to comply with any open record requests from media for businesses’ names.

“Wisconsin businesses have already suffered great hardships as a result of the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the letter said. “We don’t see any reason to compound an already bad situation by needlessly and unfairly defaming, embarrassing and shaming businesses in this way.”

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said business groups shouldn’t get to decide what information is publicly available.

“The scenarios of great harm cited in this letter are entirely speculative, backed by not a shred of evidence, and predicated on assuming the absolute worst about the people of Wisconsin — that they are too mean and too stupid to be entrusted with information about which businesses have exerienced cases of COVID-19 without flipping out,” Lueders said.

DHS spokeswoman Elizabeth Goodsitt said Wednesday that the department has no immediate plans to list businesses with COVID-19 positives on its website, but she acknowledged that media outlets have made open record requests for the information. She said the department’s attorneys are analyzing the requests under the open records law.

Also on Wednesday, Republican lawmakers called on Evers to use federal coronavirus relief money to provide direct payments or loans to people who have been waiting for their unemployment insurance claims to be approved. Republicans identified $280 million in federal money that could be tapped for that. Every $40 million in loans could provide about 10,800 people with around $3,700, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

As of June 27, the state Department of Workforce Development was still processing claims from about 141,100 people, accounting for nearly 14% of all claims filed since March 15. While some will be deemed ineligible, others who are approved will receive back payments for the time while they waited.

Evers has faced pressure from people who have been waiting weeks or longer for their claims to process while they are out of work. The Department of Workforce Development said Wednesday that it has more than tripled its staff that handle unemployment claims, increased the rate at which calls are answered and is making progress on the backlog.

Evers’ spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on the GOP proposal.