When Wisconsin's safer-at-home order might end, how the state might reopen and answers to other questions
In March, Gov. Tony Evers ordered businesses to close and people to stay at home to minimize the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed 300 and sickened more than 6,000 Wisconsinites.
The Democratic governor has kept that order in place but in recent days unveiled a plan to eventually reopen the state. Here is a look at some key questions — and answers —about where everything stands:
The governor has started relaxing some parts of his stay-at-home order, yet he recently extended it to May 26. Why?
Evers has compared the state's reopening to turning a dial rather than flipping a switch.
In April, he extended his stay-at-home order to just after Memorial Day, saying continuing to limit people's movement is essential to slowing the spread of coronavirus. But he's also loosened some restrictions on some businesses.
For instance, he recently expanded the ability of business to offer dropoff and curbside service. This will allow people to rent kayaks and ATVs or drop off a dog for grooming. Evers says the risks for such transactions are low because any person-to-person contact will be limited.
He also moved to reopen some state parks and forests, with special conditions.
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What's the basis of the Republican lawsuit challenging the extension?
Republican lawmakers have asked the state Supreme Court to block the stay-at-home order, arguing the Legislature should have a role in determining the state’s response to the pandemic. They are seeking to force the administration to write state rules, which lawmakers can easily halt.
State law gives governors broader powers if they declare public emergencies, but their emergency declarations are good for only 60 days unless lawmakers agree to make them longer.
Evers' emergency declaration expires in mid-May and GOP lawmakers say he can't keep the stay-at-home order in place after that without their approval. But Evers argues his administration can continue to issue orders to protect public health even after his original order expires.
When will that case be heard?
The Republicans filed their case directly with the state Supreme Court, rather than a circuit court, where most cases begin. The justices can decide for themselves whether to take the case and the timeline is up to them.
The justices could decide whether to accept the case as soon as this week, and if they take it they will have to determine whether, when and how to hold oral arguments. (Oral arguments are usually held in the state Capitol, but the court has not been meeting in person because of COVID-19.)
What happens if the court rules against Evers? Will local stay-at-home orders remain in effect? What is the GOP plan?
If the court throws out Evers' stay-at-home order, the administration will have to write state rules. That process takes weeks and lawmakers have the ability to block any rules. That means, depending on how the case goes, there could be a period where there are no state rules in place.
Republican lawmakers have criticized Evers' plan as going too far, but they have not spelled out one of their own. If they win the lawsuit, they'll need to develop a plan quickly. In that scenario, both Evers and lawmakers will have to agree on a state strategy — something they have rarely been able to do over an array of issues.
Local health officials have the power to issue their own orders during emergencies. It's unclear whether a decision by the state Supreme Court could limit those powers. If the local powers remained in place, different communities could wind up with different policies.
Evers has laid out a series of benchmarks in his Badger Bounce Back plan. What if some are met and not others?
Under Evers' plan, the state could begin to reopen when certain conditions are met. Over 14 days, the state must have fewer new diagnoses of coronavirus, fewer new reports of flu-like symptoms and a lower percentage of positive coronavirus tests.
In addition, hospitals must be able to treat all coronavirus patients without using “crisis care,” the state must be able to conduct 85,000 tests a week and the state must have a greatly expanded ability to do contact tracing, which involves identifying people who may have been exposed to someone who tested positive.
That doesn't mean there must be improvements every day for 14 days, but rather that there must be a positive trend over that period.
It wouldn't be impossible for reopening to still occur if the state hits some of its goals but lags on others, said Ryan Westergaard, the state Department of Health Services' chief medical officer. But state officials hope data for each condition "would be telling us the same story" that things are moving in the right direction, he said.
Will we really need to run 85,000 tests per week?
In all, 50 labs across the state have run an average of 2,663 tests per day during the last five days — not quite a fourth of the number Evers released as a goal.
With many more people eligible for testing now than a few weeks prior, Westergaard said it would be a problem if the percentage of positive tests remained around 10%, where it has averaged recently.
Ideally, it would drop to about 5%, he said, which is where it stood before the safer-at-home order went into effect.
How many contact tracers are needed to achieve these goals and how long will it take to hire them?
Evers wants to have 1,000 contact tracers dedicated to tracking the spread of coronavirus. A staff of 249 have been given that task so far, according to DHS deputy secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk.
The state hopes to hire the rest by the end of the month, Westergaard said. He acknowledged that may be difficult to do.
Where will all of these new contact tracers come from?
The tracers already in action have helped local public health officials in places where cases are surging, like Brown and Milwaukee counties. Those workers have been pulled from various divisions of the state Department of Health Services, Westergaard said.
But because the process will likely turn into a full-time job until a vaccine is developed, positions dedicated to that task will be needed at both the state and local level, and not just inside public health departments, he said.
A possible approach would be to hire some additional state staff to fill the "surge" roles, partner with local agencies that have established relationships with underserved communities, and maybe enlist volunteers, Westergaard said.
What's the soonest the state could open under a best-case scenario?
Westergaard said if everything goes right and the state sees steady improvements, the state could begin to open in about a month — roughly when the latest Evers order expires. But the facts on the ground will determine when restrictions are eased.
There are many parts of the state that are not seeing high number of cases, such as in rural areas. Why can't they reopen now?
Evers has said he doesn't want to open up rural parts of the state while keeping more populated portions closed because access to health care in rural areas is already limited and resources are scare.
In addition, if one part of the state has looser rules than others, people could flock to those regions and the illness could more easily spread, he said.
An outbreak in a rural portion of the state, he said, could overwhelm local governments and health care providers.
Evers and six other Midwestern governors announced plans to coordinate efforts to reopen the states, but none of the states seems to be on the same timetable. What does this cooperation agreement mean?
The coordinated approach does not mean that each state will reopen at the same time, according to a joint statement from the governors. The agreement sets the same goals for the states:
- Sustained control of the rate of new infections and hospitalizations.
- Enhanced ability to test and trace.
- Sufficient health care capacity to handle a resurgence.
- Best practices for social distancing in the workplace.
Similar regional approaches are being taken in the northeast and among some western states.
Why should reopening Wisconsin be tied to the situation in other states, which may be worse off or doing a worse job flattening the curve?
Because residents can freely cross between state borders, officials say a regional approach helps limit the spread of coronavirus.
The goal is to avoid situations in which residents in one state are tempted to travel to a neighboring one to visit a specific type of business — such as a barbershop or greenhouse — that is closed in their home state.
Already, some businesses and even communities are saying they may defy Evers' orders and reopen early. Can they do that?
The orders have statewide effect, but they are enforced at the local level.
A business owner who defies them runs the risk of being fined or jailed, but the chances of that happening could vary from one community to another. Some law enforcement officials, such as Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling, have indicated they won't enforce the state orders.
Hartford has said it will allow restaurants and bars to resume dine-in service possibly as soon as May 11, which would violate the state orders. The state Department of Justice would not have jurisdiction to enforce the state orders, a department spokeswoman said.