Appeals court stays Wisconsin limits on gatherings

A Wisconsin appeals court on Friday temporarily blocked Gov. Tony Evers' restrictions on indoor public gatherings pending appeal, dealing the Democratic governor a setback in his efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The ruling from the 3rd District Court of Appeals follows Evers' administration issuing an emergency order on Oct. 6. The directive limited indoor public gatherings to 25% of a building or room's capacity or 10 people in places without an occupancy limit.

The order also came as COVID-19 cases surged in Wisconsin, where the state this week was among the worst in the nation in daily new cases per capita and hospitals are near capacity. But the powerful Tavern League of Wisconsin argued the capacity limits amount to a "de facto closure" order for bars and restaurants and sued to strike down the order. 

The capacity limits have been on a seesaw ever since, with a Sawyer County judge blocking the order Oct. 14, only to have a Barron County judge reinstate it five days later. A three-judge panel of the appellate court wrote that the plaintiffs had shown "sufficient likelihood of success" with the appeal to grant the stay.

The Mix Up bar in Amery and Pro-Life Wisconsin, in appealing the capacity limits, argued that they prevent Pro-Life Wisconsin from holding indoor fundraisers and Evers should gone through the Legislature to issue an administrative rule enacting the limits.

The decision is another setback for Evers as he tries to find ways to slow the spread of the virus. Conservative justices on the state Supreme Court struck down his stay-at-home order in May in a ruling that Evers has said has largely tied his hands as the virus surges.

Republican lawmakers are also suing to end the governor's statewide mask mandate, arguing that Evers exceeded his authority.

State health officials reported Friday that nearly 4,400 more Wisconsin residents have contracted COVID-19 as the disease continues to surge unchecked across the state. The daily record is 4,591 cases, set on Tuesday. DHS reported 42 more people have died, bringing the death toll to 1,745.

The Wisconsin Hospital Association reported 1,243 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Friday, setting a record for the second straight day. Two patients were in a field hospital at the state fairgrounds in West Allis as of Friday.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos' chief-of-staff, Jenny Toftness, contracted the virus after attending a retirement party for a state Capitol staffer in September.

Vos' spokeswoman, Kit Beyer, said Toftness quarantined herself when she learned she had been exposed and has fully recovered. Vos himself hasn't been in close contact with Toftness recently and has not contracted the virus, Beyer added.