MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Tony Evers said Friday that he doesn't know when Wisconsin businesses will be allowed to re-open, but that it might happen after his current closure order expires on April 24 and that it probably won't happen all at once.
A loosening of restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus is likely to happen gradually and follow the recommendations of public health experts, he said.
"The last thing you want is a resurgence because you, quote unquote, re-opened too soon," Evers said.
His comments came after two of the most conservative members of the Wisconsin Senate accused state health officials of stoking fear over the coronavirus and warned that if the Democratic governor extended a stay-at-home order into May, it could lead to civil disobedience.
Evers called for a ratcheting down of partisan rhetoric, particularly from those who have called for cutting state employee salaries to help deal with the state budget hit caused by the coronavirus crisis.
"Hopefully we can continue to defeat the virus instead of defeating each other," Evers said on a conference call.
The critical comments from state Sens. Steve Nass, of Whitewater, and Duey Stroebel, of Cedarburg, demonstrated growing Republican criticism of how Evers has handled the pandemic a month since he first declared a public health emergency.
Evers and the state's top health official, Andrea Palm, defended their handling of the crisis, saying their decisions have been driven by science and a desire to slow the spread of the virus. Nass accused Palm of promoting "excessive levels of fear."
Nass also said state health officials told lawmakers that they want to see safer-at-home restrictions extended for up to six months.
"I have never had a conversation with them in which I have said the safer-at-home order would last six months," Palm told reporters. But she cautioned that the pandemic will continue to have to be managed for many more months until a vaccine becomes available.
"Until we can medically treat this, the tools we have are physical distancing and the kind of mass gathering restrictions we have done," she said.
Evers' stay-at-home order runs until April 24. He has asked the Legislature to allow his original public health emergency declaration to continue indefinitely. Without such an extension, the Legislature would have to renew it in early May.
Evers has ordered the closure of all nonessential businesses and banned nearly all public gatherings. Earlier this week, he ordered 40 state parks and recreational areas closed, reiterated that churches can hold drive-in services on Easter and said the ban on golfing would continue.
Stroebel called for a "fresh look" to re-evaluate policy choices and begin planning for "reopening our civil life."
"Every sickness and death is a tragedy, but so are businesses and livelihoods ruined by shelter in place orders," he said. "Besides being counterproductive, indefinite sheltering orders will eventually lead to civil disobedience."
Evers said he was following the science, not politics, when making decisions.
"As we get closer to a point where we feel comfortable relaxing some of the requirements, we will," Evers said. "And we will be working with the business community to make that happen. It's not an either-or situation when it comes to people's lives."
As of Friday, 128 people had died of COVID-19 in Wisconsin and the state had registered nearly 3,100 confirmed cases. The majority of those who have died, 77, were in Milwaukee County.