Virus Outbreak-Wisconsin Senate

In this Tuesday, March 24, 2020 photo, Wisconsin Senate President Roger Roth, middle right, speaks during a mock session in the Joint Finance Committee Room, in Madison, Wis. The state Senate for the first time is piloting their emergency virtual session capabilities in case they need to convene outside of the building. Senate leadership stand-ins were using Skype and potentially other technology in the Joint Finance Committee Room to pilot the mock session. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

MADISON — Wisconsin’s Republican legislative leaders said Wednesday they want to understand what’s in the $2 trillion federal stimulus package before they take any action at the state level in reaction to the coronavirus, and that they're considering temporarily waiving the one-week waiting period to receive unemployment benefits.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos urged caution because of the national economic downturn, saying he doesn’t know if Wisconsin's current budget will be able to balance next year and that he assumes that the state’s projected budget surplus of $620 million will never materialize.

Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, seated apart from one another while hosting a teleconference from inside the Assembly parlor, both said they didn't think Gov. Tony Evers “safer at home” order, which began Wednesday, would extend beyond its current end date of April 24.

“The longer this order goes, the more businesses are never going to have a chance to reopen,” said Vos, who owns a popcorn business.

Vos and Fitzgerald declined to praise or criticize Evers for issuing the order, though they said he could have done a better job communicating with the state about what was happening.

“It is what it is at this point,” Fitzgerald said. “It wasn’t the smoothest thing, certainly, that’s happened so far. I understand we're in a difficult point in time now.”

Vos and Fitzgerald said there had been no discussion of the Legislature cutting short any of Evers’ emergency orders that have resulted in the closure of all K-12 schools and nonessential businesses.

As of Wednesday, the state reported that it has had 585 positive COVID-19 cases, which was up from 457 on Tuesday. Wisconsin has also had at least seven deaths, which was up from five a day earlier. Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm said on Tuesday that models showed up to 1,500 people in Wisconsin could die within the next two weeks if people don't follow the order to stay at home.

“A lot of what we’re preparing for is the worse case scenario,” Vos said. “These are based on models and hypotheticals. Let’s hope that they are wrong. I hope that every one of these predictions comes not to be true and that it was an over-reaction, but we won’t know that.”

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

Fitzgerald, who is running for Congress, broke with President Donald Trump’s statement this week that the country would be “opened up” by Easter, which is on April 12. Fitzgerald said decisions about loosening restrictions can’t be made based on dates, but rather where things stand on a day-to-day basis trying to stop the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Whether the public stays at home and takes steps not to spread the virus and slow the growth in cases will become clear in the next couple of weeks, and “the jury is out” on whether hospitals will have enough beds for patients, Fitzgerald said.

As for possible legislative action, Vos said lawmakers were looking at “getting rid of red tape” and other steps that can help people get access to the aid and programs they need during this time, and help ease the process for professionals facing deadlines to renew their licenses.

Evers has pushed Republicans to waive a one-week waiting period for people to access unemployment benefits. Vos said Republicans were considering doing that temporarily.

More than 105,600 people filed for unemployment in the past week, compared with just over 5,500 during the same week last year, based on preliminary figures from the state Department of Workforce Development.

Both the Senate and Assembly were considering options for virtual meetings so that all or some lawmakers would not have to attend in person. The Senate did a mock session on Tuesday to see how the technology would work.