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Members of the Wisconsin National Guard working at a COVID-19 testing site at the United Migrant Opportunity Services building, 2701 S. Chase Ave., in Milwaukee. As the state’s outbreak balloons to one of the nation’s worst, the surge of cases and hospitalizations in northeast Wisconsin is unlike anything the region has experienced since the pandemic began. (Photo: Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

The Wisconsin Hospital Association and a coalition of health care and business organizations have formed a coalition to encourage people to wear masks and take other precautions to check the surge in COVID-19 infections in the state.

“What we know is that masks work,” said Eric Borgerding, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Hospital Association. “And whether it’s through a mandate or through very vigilant use and encouragement of using masks, we know that it works.”

The planned campaign comes at a time when the state has seen a record number of COVID-19 cases and deaths from the coronavirus.

Track COVID-19 in Wisconsin: See the latest numbers and trends.

Borgerding did not comment on the opposition by Republican leaders of the state Legislature to Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide mandate requiring people to wear masks in public places when not a safe distance from others.

The state Legislature filed a brief in support of a lawsuit challenging the governor’s order issued under a public health emergency. The lawsuit was filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a conservative think tank that argues Evers overstepped his authority by issuing the executive order.

“Those things are going to play out,” Borgerding said. “That’s really not what our coalition is about. Our coalition is about making sure that the public understands how serious this really is and, secondly, that they diligently adhere to those safety protocols, regardless of how they are implemented.” 

The coalition, which includes more than 20 groups, plans public service announcements and to encourage their members to support preventative measures to help control the spread of the virus.

The campaign comes as some Republican lawmakers continue to downplay the pandemic.

The coalition includes Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business group, which has sued Evers to block the state from releasing the names of businesses linked to COVID-19 cases.

The Evers administration planned to release the information in response to an open records request on June 6 from the Journal Sentinel for information on plants, stores and other facilities that have reported COVID-19 cases.

The WMC has argued the records are protected by patient confidentiality laws and that disclosure will harm businesses by “effectively blacklisting them.”

The Wisconsin Hospital Association did not respond to whether making the information public could encourage some people to wear masks and take other precautions.

“That is not an issue that the coalition is focusing on,” Borgerding said in an email. “What we can speak to is the impact that this pandemic has had on all of the industries represented here, and what our coalition is doing to show every Wisconsinite what they can and must do personally to help stop the spread of COVID-19.”

At the news conference, Kurt Bauer, president and CEO of WMC, said employers have been taking the necessary steps to keep people safe since the beginning of the pandemic.

“One of the things we’ve been working on in the last couple of weeks is asking our business leaders to become community leaders,” Bauer said, “and making sure that they are communicating and emphasizing to their employees to take the same precautions at home and at play that they have been at work.”

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