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Dentist Pablo Fernandez, left, does a dental filling at Lake Area Free Clinic in Oconomowoc in May 2019. (Photo by Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) Dentist Pablo Fernandez, left, does a dental filling at Lake Area Free Clinic in Oconomowoc in May 2019. (Photo by Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Dentist Pablo Fernandez, left, does a dental filling at Lake Area Free Clinic in Oconomowoc in May 2019. (Photo by Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

By Nusaiba Mizan May 15, 2020

Yes, dentists were essential under Wisconsin’s Safer At Home order.

If Your Time is short

  • The executive order from Gov. Tony Evers classified dental offices as essential

  • Dentists could individually choose how to operate when the order was in effect, but Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services recommends they follow CDC guidelines, which meant postponing elective procedures and visits.

Amid the political upheaval over when and how and how fast to reopen Wisconsin, there was a point on May 11, 2020, when Gov Tony Evers relaxed his stay-at-home order to allow small retail establishments to reopen, so long as they limited shoppers to five or fewer.

The state Supreme Court later voted 4-3 to toss out Evers’ order entirely, saying his administration had to work with the GOP-controlled Legislature on any continued restrictions.

In the wake of Evers’ May 11 action, state Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls, offered this tweet targeted at Evers:

@Gov Evers liquor stores are open, strip malls can have 5 customers, but dentists are non-essential?!

Is she right?

Were dentists considered non-essential under the safer-at-home order?

The short answer: No.

The Governor’s executive order

Let’s start with the order itself: Executive Order #28

Under Section 13, essential businesses include healthcare and public health operations. And, elsewhere within the order, dental offices are classified under healthcare and as public health operations. So, that order did not block dentists from seeing patients.

Meanwhile, an online map from the American Dental Association that tracks the extent to which dentists nationwide have been able to offer services shows the vast majority of states, including Wisconsin, allowing elective and emergency procedures. Of those, as of May 14, 2020, the map showed seven states allowing only emergency procedures. (No state had dentist offices closed entirely.)

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Beyond that, Wisconsin is listed among only four states – including California, Rhode Island, and Delaware – that explicitly designated dentists as essential.

That said, the American Dental Association has recommended dentists remain open only for emergency procedures and postpone elective procedures. And the Wisconsin Dental Association follows ADA recommendations.

Similarly, the state Department of Health Services recommends dentists follow guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which include postponing elective procedures and non-emergency visits. 

So, on a practical level, many dentist offices held off on doing routine visits, such as cleanings and checkups. But that was due to their own choice, and consistent with guidelines from dental groups and health agencies. It was not forbidden under Evers’ order.

When asked for backup for the claim that dentists were deemed nonessential, Brandtjen didn’t cite the order itself.

Rather, in an email, she said Wisconsin dentists planned to start opening their offices in early May, but claimed the state Department of Health Services notified the Dentistry Examining Board that those who did could put their licenses in jeopardy.

Jennifer Garrett, communications director for the Department of Safety and Professional Services, said examining board members were advised by legal counsel May 6, 2020, that dentists should follow DHS guidelines, and could face penalties if they did not. 

But, as evidence, that is off point, particularly with such a narrow claim. 

As noted, the Evers order declared dentists essential — the opposite of what Brandtjen claimed.

Our rating

Brandtjen tweeted that under orders from Evers, dentists were classified as non-essential, and therefore had to remain closed.

But Evers’ order — unlike those from many other governors — explicitly declared dentists, like other health care workers, were essential. Thus, they were allowed to stay open, even if many chose to limit their offerings to emergency work.

We rate Brandtjen’s claim False.

Our Sources

Janel Brandtjen, Twitter, May 12, 2020

American Dental Association, State Mandates and Recommendations on COVID-19, accessed May 14, 2020

Email conversation with Wisconsin Rep. Janel Brandtjen, May 13, 2020

Email conversation with Melissa Baldauff, communications director for Gov. Evers, May 13, 2020

Email conversation with Jennifer Garrett, communications director for the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services, May 14, 2020

Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Emergency Order #36, May 11, 2020

Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Emergency Order #28, April 16, 2020

American Dental Association, news release, March 16, 2020

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Yes, dentists were essential under Wisconsin’s Safer At Home order.

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