Republican State Lawmaker Targets Central Wisconsin Children’s Museum

By Jonah Chester and WORT News Department

The Central Wisconsin Children’s Museum is a small non-profit organization in Stevens Point. Like many community organizations, it’s faced a difficult 16 months, as the pandemic has strained the Museum and its staff.

Earlier this month, the museum set new mask requirements for attendees. Per the new guidelines, those who are vaccinated are allowed to enter the museum without a mask — provided they show a valid vaccination card. Everyone else five and up would still be required to mask up.

In response to a Facebook post on the new policy, State Representative Shae Sortwell — a Republican from Two Rivers — reposted the message, writing “The Gestapo wants to see your papers, please.”

Sortwell’s district, south-east of Green Bay, is more than a hundred miles away from the museum.

Cory Rusch, the museum’s director, says things took a turn for the worse after Sortwell’s comment. People dogpiled on Sortwell’s post, harassing museum staff and bombarding them with complaints.

“It was immediately the threats and the name-calling and it just immediately overwhelmed my staff. They were pretty upset,” he told WORT. “I said, ‘I’ll take the museum by myself for a few days, you shouldn’t have to put up with that.’ I ran the museum on my own, and I spent a lot of time getting back to each and every one of the people, even though they were calling us names, I really tried to have a discussion with them and explain that we have all these options, and this is why we’re making the decision we’re making.”

Rusch says that, after talking with those folks individually, most of them revised their initial opinions. Sortwell, however, has not yet apologized for inciting the frenzy.

Sortwell’s office did not respond to WORT’s request for comment today. Rusch isn’t surprised that Sortwell has gone radio silent since the incident.

“I didn’t really expect an apology. Their strategy book is to never apologize for anything ever.,” Rusch says.

Children under the age of 12, the primary clientele for a Children’s Museum, are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. According to numbers from the state’s Department of Health Services, only about six percent of 12-15 year olds have been fully immunized.

Although young children are unlikely to experience the worst effects of COVID-19, they can still transmit the virus to non-vaccinated adults. 

Locally, Madison’s Children’s Museum has established public health protocols using a public input and feedback system. The museum, which requires masks for everyone three and up, reopened to members earlier this month. The museum will reopen for the general public on June 24th.

Jonathan Zarov, a spokesperson for Madison’s Children’s Museum, says feedback to their health precautions have been overwhelmingly positive.

“I’m not even sure I can think of an example of somebody who has pushed back and said they don’t want a mask requirement,” he says. “Overwhelmingly, the feedback has been ‘We’re so glad you’re opening in a responsible, safe way.’”

Sortwell’s comment towards the Central Wisconsin Children’s Museum has generated swift backlash from Stevens Point leaders, residents and even members of the state legislature. State Representative Katrina Shankland is a Democrat representing Stevens Point and surrounding areas.

She says that Sortwell’s comment was irresponsible.

“To see an elected official who knows full well that when he posts on Facebook and people share it, that there are consequences…To make light of that, it sickens me,” she says. “I also think this speaks to a much larger issue, that people are callous and careless with their words on social media and in-person and when it comes to causing harm — whether it’s making an anti-semitic reference, or a joke related to the holocaust — it shows we have so much more work to do in our communities, state and country.”