Wisconsin is battling America’s worst coronavirus outbreak, and the state’s broken politics is partially to blame
Check out a map of daily COVID-19 cases in the US. Most of the northeast and west coasts are yellow, indicating a limited distribution. The tallies in the southeast are more moderate or orange. Move to the upper Midwest and more red hot spots will appear.
And then there is another bright red state: Wisconsin.
Wisconsin is currently battling the worst coronavirus outbreak in America. The question is why. How is Wisconsin different from, for example, the neighboring states of Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois, where the virus does not spread nearly as quickly?
The answer is, at least in part, politics: specifically, the brand of carefree politics promoted by President Trump and emulated by lower-level Republicans who appear to want to oppose efforts to maintain social distancing and masking. Wear when the spread is still low enough to contain - and in Wisconsin's case, spiraling out of control even after infection.
As Trump resumes his personal campaign with a White House event on Saturday and a rally Monday in Florida - and cases nationally soaring to their highest level since August - Wisconsin has emerged as a warning story for the rest of the country what could come this fall and winter in places where politics stand in the way of precautionary measures of common sense. Last month, Trump hosted an outdoor rally in Mosinee which was attended by thousands of people, most of whom were not wearing masks. Even as the number of cases rose, he planned to return to successive rallies in Janesville and Green Bay earlier this month - plans that were only abandoned after the president himself tested positive for the virus.
Wisconsin's numbers are sobering. On Thursday, the state's new daily caseload put out 3,000 for the first time. The seven-day average (2,491) has more than tripled since the beginning of September. Daily hospital stays have tripled over the same period. Almost 20 percent of COVID-19 tests in Wisconsin are positive.
In total, Badger State has registered 17,437 new cases in the past seven days - more than any other state except for the far more populous Texas and California. On a per capita basis, this is more new cases (299 per 100,000) than in any other state except the far less populous Dakotas and many times more than in Michigan (75), Illinois (123), or Minnesota (137).
On a list of the 100 counties across the country with the highest number of new cases per inhabitant, Wisconsin has all but two counties with more than 300 cases in the last seven days: Oconto (365), Winnebago (1,439), Shawano (337 ), Calumet (395), Waupaca (307), Outagamie (1,023) and Brown (1,409). There are a total of 16 Wisconsin counties on this list - most of any state. And unlike other hard-hit states like Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas, Wisconsin's hot spots aren't spread over long distances. They are contiguous and concentrated in cities like Green Bay in the northeast corner of the state, making it more difficult to contain the spread.
Next week, Wisconsin officials are planning to open a 530-bed field hospital on the state fairgrounds to prevent COVID-19 patients from flooding health facilities that Democratic Governor Tony Evers recently described as "on the verge" of collapse.
"We hoped that day wouldn't come," complained Evers. “Unfortunately, Wisconsin is in a very different, worse place today. ... There is no other way of saying it: We are overwhelmed.
Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told NBC News earlier this week, "Wisconsin has become the poster child for how things can go wrong."
Nursing Assistant Monica Brodsky (left) and Nurse Taylor Mathisen work in a drive-through parking lot for COVID-19 in the parking lot of the UW Health administration building in Middleton, Wisconsin on Monday, October 5, 2020. (Amber Arnold / Wisconsin State Journal via AP)
So what went wrong?
The most disturbing thing about Wisconsin's outbreak is that it didn't have to be that bad. NBC described the problem as "a political trench warfare between the Democratic governor and the Republicans who control state law". That's technically correct, but it also sounds like both sides are equally defending reasonable positions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
You are not. On the one hand, Evers has repeatedly tried to do everything in his power to contain the pandemic. Republicans, on the flip side, have repeatedly challenged Evers' authority and thwarted his efforts by blocking the kind of basic public health measures other states have taken while campaigning as advocates of "individual freedom." .
The first, and perhaps most momentous, of these skirmishes came in the spring when Republican legislature leaders filed a lawsuit arguing that the Evers "Safer Home" ordinance would leave the state's economy "in tatters" - even though it would not stricter than dozen of other shelter-in-place missions across the country. On May 13, the state's Supreme Court, also controlled by Conservatives, joined the GOP and overturned the order. Evers wasn't pleased, and told CNN that the court's decision "throws our state into chaos".
"Now we have no plan or protection for the people of Wisconsin," said the governor. "If you have more people in a small space - I don't care if it's bars, restaurants, or your home - you can spread the virus. And now, thanks to convincing Republican lawmakers, today four Supreme Court Justices, who are not concerned with the law but with their political careers, I think it's a bad day for Wisconsin. "
"It's the wild west," he added.
Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers speaks during a press conference in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in late August. (Morry Gash / AP)
Bars and restaurants reopened immediately. Patrons crowded in. For a while, the state's case numbers remained relatively low, even as the virus rose to record levels in the south and west. However, this only fueled complacency, and by the time the students returned for the fall semester, public health efforts were so politicized that Evers had less power to slow the spread than the governors in neighboring states.
In July, for example, Evers issued a nationwide ordinance mandating indoor masks, which he extended to November 21 last month. Although nearly three-quarters of the Wisconsinites are in favor of Evers' mandate, Republican lawmakers support another lawsuit against it. A judge is expected to rule every day.
The same goes for Evers' most recent order, which will limit indoor capacity in bars, restaurants and shops to 25 percent if the virus rises. "Do I expect there will be legal disputes about this?" Ryan Nilsestuen, Evers' top attorney, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this week, "Absolutely."
This relentless campaign to delegitimize precautionary measures against pandemics as excess of partisans comes at a cost. It advises against compliance. This has a negative impact on enforcement. And it preventively restricts the government's ability to cope with a worsening crisis.
Note that in California and New York, two of the hardest hit states, indoor dining has only recently resumed at 25 percent capacity, despite months of low or declining case numbers.
But in Wisconsin, people have been drinking and eating indoors since the spring, and it took a full month of exponential expansion before Evers felt he might be trying to limit capacity. Even now, in the middle of America's worst outbreak, Wisconsites can still drink and dine indoors. Partly as a result of this, infections radiated from colleges and covered the state.
Of course, Republicans have resisted efforts to fight the virus elsewhere, including Michigan, where the Supreme Court ruled last week that Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer has no power to extend or declare states of emergency related to the pandemic.
But Wisconsin is perhaps America's truest exchange: a state that fits our divided national politics in both the narrowness of its elections and the conflicts that define them. Over the past decade, Republican activism funded by the Koch brothers has clashed with the state's profound progressive tradition, tipping the scales in favor of the GOP, and sharpening the polarization between left and right, white and black, urban and rural. After the Republicans took control of the governor's mansion, the US house delegation, a seat in the US Senate and both houses in the 2010 tea party wave, the Republicans turned so aggressively against the state that the Democrats did so 2018 won 53 percent of the assembly's vote, with Republicans still winning 64 percent of the seats.
Evers took office the following year, and the Republicans immediately tried to render him powerless, for the benefit of the partisans. That was long before the pandemic. Now that coronavirus cases are skyrocketing, the life and death consequences of such polarization are becoming harder to ignore. With fall in full swing and winter approaching, we hope the rest of America doesn't go the Wisconsin route.
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