MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers' coronavirus stay-at-home order Wednesday, ruling that his administration overstepped its authority when it extended it for another month without consulting legislators.
The 4-3 ruling essentially reopens the state, lifting caps on the size of gatherings, allowing people to travel as they please and allowing shuttered businesses to reopen, including bars and restaurants. The Tavern League of Wisconsin swiftly posted the news on its website, telling members, "You can OPEN IMMEDIATELY!"
The decision let stand language that had closed schools, however, and local governments can still impose their own health restrictions. In Dane County, home to the capital of Madison, officials quickly imposed a mandate incorporating most of the statewide order. City health officials in Milwaukee said a stay-at-home order they enacted in late March remains in effect.
Evers reacted angrily in a conference call Wednesday night, saying the state has been doing well in the fight against the coronavirus. He predicted the court ruling will lead more counties to adopt their own restrictions, leading to a confusing patchwork of ordinances that will allow infection to spread.
"Today, Republican legislators convinced four members of the state Supreme Court to throw the state into chaos," Evers said. "They have provided no plan. There's no question among anybody that people are going to get sick. Republicans own that chaos."
Chief Justice Patience Roggensack wrote for the majority that health secretary Andrea Palm's order amounted to an emergency rule that she doesn't have the power to create on her own.
"Rule-making exists precisely to ensure that kind of controlling, subjective judgement asserted by one unelected official, Palm, is not imposed in Wisconsin," Roggensack, part of the court's 5-2 conservative majority, wrote.
Rebecca Dallet, one of the court's liberal justices, dissented, saying the decision will "undoubtedly go down as one of the most blatant examples of judicial activism in this court's history. And it will be Wisconsinites who pay the price."
Dallet also took aim at the potential delay of a rule-making process:: "A review of the tedious multi-step process required to enact an emergency rule illustrates why the Legislature authorized DHS to issue statewide orders to control contagion."
State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, both Republicans, said they're confident businesses can safely reopen by following guidelines calling for letting workers stay home if they're sick, making workers wash their hands and implementing telework and social distancing and postponing travel and events.
"This (court decision) does not promote people to act in a way that they believe endangers their health," they said.
The GOP so far has not offered any alternative plans. The state's chamber of commerce has suggested allowing all businesses to open at once while compelling higher-risk establishments and operations to take increasingly strict mitigation measures such as requiring employees to use protective gear.
Evers said there's no avenue to appeal the decision. His administration plans to put together an emergency rule addressing the virus, he said, but the process is so complex that it could be at least two weeks before state health officials can start drafting it. And the final product could be blocked by legislators.
"In the meantime, we're going to have 72 counties doing their own thing," Evers said. "I can't believe there's a state in the nation with this type of chaos."