Wisconsin Senate Unveils Pared-Down COVID-19 Response Bill

Republicans in the state Senate have unveiled a pared-down bill responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in Wisconsin, whittling away some provisions Democratic Gov. Tony Evers objected to, but holding onto at least one potential “poison pill.”

The Senate committee approved the bill on a party-line vote on Monday, with Republicans voting in favor and Democrats against. It’s expected to go before the full Senate on Tuesday.

The amended bill, released Monday, eliminates several provisions included in a bill approved last week by the Republican-controlled state Assembly. Evers, who has the power to veto any proposal approved by the Legislature, opposed several of those now-deleted provisions. 

Speaking before a Senate committee on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said the new proposal is aimed at getting the governor’s approval. 

“If there’s a way we can get a bill done … to address these issues that are at hand, (to) find a bill that we can all get behind, that’s what we really need to do as a body,” LeMahieu said. 

LeMahieu said more than half of the provisions in the new version of the bill are extensions of things passed in last year’s state COVID-19 response bill, which was approved in April. Those provisions include extending a temporary suspension of the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits in Wisconsin. 

The Senate bill also includes several items that Evers put in his own proposed COVID-19 bill, released last month. Those include extending the hours of the state unemployment insurance call center, allowing first- and second-year pharmacy students to administer the COVID-19 vaccine and requiring state health plans for low-income individuals and the elderly to cover the cost of vaccinations. 

However, the bill includes some things the governor may not agree to, including legal protections for businesses and other entities that don’t follow government requirements aimed at curbing the spread of the virus. 

Under the plan, businesses, schools, nonprofit organizations and government entities would be immune from lawsuits unless they commit “reckless or wanton conduct or intentional misconduct.” However, the bill specifies “noncompliance with any applicable national, state, or local order requiring entities to close or limit capacity does not constitute reckless or wanton conduct.”

Several businesses and business groups testified in support of the legal immunity provision during Monday’s hearing, including Kwik Trip, the Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association and the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.

During testimony, Kristine Hillmer, president of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, said restaurants have been “scapegoated” during the pandemic. 

“Our industry has become a major fall guy for this pandemic, which also makes us a major target for frivolous lawsuits over exposure to COVID-19,” she said.

Hillmer said an association survey last month found 37 percent of its members are likely to go out of business because of the pandemic and 46 percent are considering closing until the pandemic is over.

Dan Rossmiller, government relations director for Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said the group didn’t support the Assembly-backed COVID-19 response bill, but approves of the pared-down Senate version, saying it provides necessary legal protections for schools. 

“I can’t imagine how much of the time on school administrators’ calendars has been spent in meetings talking to their liability carriers and their local health officials and their attorneys, trying to figure out what the best course of action is,” Rossmiller said. “I think this bill will give some certainty.”

However, some used their testimony during the committee meeting Monday to push back on the proposed legal immunity, including Madison restaurant owner Dave Heide.

“I need your help actually protecting our restaurants, not just trying to protect us from litigation, but trying to help and support us with grants and funds to help us get through this,” said Heide, who owned three Madison-area restaurants, one of which closed last year.

“I had to close a restaurant, it was named after my son,” Heide said. “I care about it deeply, but we never opened our building … because we wanted to protect the health of everyone in our community.”

Another provision in the Senate plan that was not included in Evers’ proposal would allow a nursing home or assisted living facility resident to designate an “essential visitor.” Such visits have been barred at facilities across the state.

The Wisconsin Assisted Living Association supports the bill. 

Evers’ office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the new proposal. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ office also didn’t respond to a request for comment.