MONROE — Green County District Attorney Craig Nolen announced he will not enforce a statewide mask-wearing order that goes into effect Aug. 1, calling the emergency order it is based on "unlawful."
Lafayette County Sheriff Reg Gill also announced that his agency will not handle complaints of violations related to the order. In a post to Facebook, Gill wrote that his deputies "WILL NOT be responding to this type of complaint." He directed people with complaints to the Governor’s Office, Wisconsin Department of Health Services or local health department.
Gov. Tony Evers issued the emergency order for a mask mandate as part of his July 30 executive order re-declaring a public health emergency to combat the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin.
Evers said previously he wouldn't issue such an order, however he cites as a justification for the mandate a recent recommendation from President Donald Trump's COVID-19 task force that Wisconsin consider adopting a statewide face covering requirement due to the state's increasing number of people infected with the new coronavirus. The task force identified Wisconsin as a "red zone" in the pandemic.
Nolen said in an announcement the same day that he believes Evers' executive order declaring a public health emergency is an unlawful extension of his March 12 emergency declaration related to COVID-19.
The order in March "relates explicitly to COVID-19," Nolen wrote, whereas the new order "includes additional recitals, none of which in my legal opinion reach the threshold of establishing authority" for the governor to issue the new order without violating the state law that grants authority for such orders.
Nolen noted that his decision not to prosecute offenses related to the statewide mask mandate "does not preclude municipalities from adopting similar ordinances."
He "strongly" encourages all residents of Green County to wear a mask, "not because of governmental mandate, but rather as the sensible thing to do to help stop the spread of a serious virus."
"Green County has responded well to the Mask Up Green County program spearheaded by the Green County Public Health Department. I remind all people of Green County to be kind, be courteous, and be safe."
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul voiced support for the statewide mask mandate.
"Increasing the use of masks means fewer COVID-19 cases, more lives saved, a faster economic recovery and less interruption of schools," he said in a statement. "The new policy is a significant, positive step in the fight against the coronavirus."
Disagreements over the order fall down partisan lines. Evers and Kaul are Democrats. Nolen, who is running an uncontested bid for reelection, is Republican, as is another DA who has announced he will not prosecute mask mandate violations, Brian Wright of Barron County.
State Republican leaders successfully sued to strike down Evers’ "Safer at Home" order in May.
Gov. Evers' order, which expires Sept. 28, requires face masks for everyone age 5 and older indoors or in enclosed spaces like outdoor bars and taxis. It does not apply in private residences except when members of another household or living unit are present.
The order allows for some exceptions, including when talking with a person who is deaf or hard of hearing when communication cannot be achieved through other means. The order also exempts those who have trouble breathing or have a medical condition, disability or sensory sensitivity that prevents them from wearing a face covering.
The state released a Frequently Asked Questions on the mask mandate. It specifies that "local and state officials may enforce the order" and violations "may result in a civil fine up to $200."
COVID-19 has killed over 151,000 people in the United States and infected over 4.4 million.
While the virus is spiking statewide and in many parts of the country, new cases in Green County have slowed. Green County Public Health reported two active cases as of July 30. So far, 119 residents locally have tested positive and one person has died from COVID-19.
But Green County is currently an island surrounded by counties with higher infection rates. Lafayette County, for example, had 16 active infections as of July 29 and 87 reported as recovered.
The Lafayette County Health Department announced its support for Gov. Evers' mask mandate, and asked "all residents and visitors of the county to comply."