Can We Stop Playing Pandemic Politics? Please?

Thursday was another sad day for Wisconsin. It was not at all surprising.

In case you missed it, and to summarize …

Thursday afternoon, the Wisconsin State Assembly voted overwhelmingly to overturn Gov. Evers’ emergency order and, in doing so, the statewide mask mandate. This followed a similar vote in the Senate last week — one made before it was revealed that taking this action put $50 million in food aid from the federal government in question. The Assembly, in an attempt to salvage the food assistance, also amended their COVID-19 relief package; the Senate was poised to take up this new bill, sure to be vetoed, on Friday.

But wait! An hour after the Assembly vote, Gov. Evers then issued a new order and a new mask mandate, essentially daring lawmakers to challenge him in court (again) or with new legislation. I’m sure they will.

The end result: We are in exactly the same place we were on Wednesday. And that is a bad place … a place where nearly 500,000 people have died of COVID-19, including 5,992 in Wisconsin and 31 in South Milwaukee; a place where more than 2,100 people — 10% of our city’s population — have had laboratory-confirmed cases; a place where we are still months away from seriously, and safely, reopening our economy; a place where many schools are only just now starting to return to in-person learning; place where we still can’t hold Summerfest, even 18 months after the first cases of coronavirus were reported in the United States.

What we need is a unified approach to fighting a deadly pandemic that does not know nor care about state, county or community boundaries. What we have is a fragemented, disjointed, and polaraized approach that is now pitting state against state, city against city and sometimes neighbor against neighbor.

All branches bear responsibility here, but the actions the legislature have taken in the last week — after almost 300 days of inaction on pandemic issues — are particularly troubling.

I get it — this is not just about government. But government, especially our state government, is in a unique position to lead in fighting back against COVID-19. And it’s not.

Locally, we are doing our best to slow the spread, led by the amazing work of local health departments. We’re working with our neighbors to deliver testing and vaccines, just as we did in the early days of the pandemic as we took more drastic actions like shutdowns and health orders and issued reopening guidance.

These actions are making a difference, but to win this fight we need more. We need more vaccines; we are typically receiving less than half of what we ask for each week from the state. We need a statewide vaccine plan that answers the key question many are asking: “When do I get mine?” We need more testing. We need more financial support for local governments and schools, and struggling businesses and families.

We also need a statewide mask order. Masking works, and I say that not because a Facebook friend tells me it does, but because every respected health care leader and institution I’ve seen says so.

Does masking prevent spread? Has it prevented all illness and death? Obviously not. The better questions are this: How bad would this have been without a mask order, and how bad could it still be if we don’t wear masks?

Lawmakers have made their choice. In voting to end the order and the mandate, a vast majority of Senate and Assembly Republicans decided on-record opposition from Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, the Medical College of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Academy of Family Physicians, the Wisconsin Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, the Pharmacy Society of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Hospital Association, and the Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments — among many others — didn’t matter. They decided the views of more than 70% of Wisconsinites who support a mask order didn’t matter.

They decided what matters is politics.

Their argument, one lawmaker said, is not about masks, but about “the rule of law,” that the governor does not have the power to issue such emergency orders and mandates. Or, as South Shore State Rep. Jessie Rodriguez said in her recent newsletter: “The resolution does not simply rescind the ‘mask mandate,’ but repeals Governor Evers’ state of emergency, which would include all emergency orders (such as the statewide mask mandate).”

Here I point out that Rep. Rodriguez was one of a handful of Assembly Republicans to vote no on overturning the orders, and I thank her and credit her for doing that. Others should have done the same for this reason: You can’t separate the two issues, not when knowing that taking one action (removing the order) automatically causes the other (ending the mask mandate) to happen.

In other words, you can’t absolve yourself of blame for the results of the actions you take. Isn’t that what we teach our kids? That’s called accountability, and it is lacking in the Capitol these days.

Instead, we get dueling press releases, finger pointing and the blame game. We get lawsuits, superheated rhetoric and namecalling. We get Tweets like this, from the state senator to our west …

I, too, was called a dicator in a blog comment last spring, by someone upset about South Milwaukee’s reopening restrictions. The death threat against me and my family followed shortly thereafter.

This is how COVID wins. This is how we lose. Or have we already lost?

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