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One year in, reflecting on Wisconsin’s pandemic experience

About a year ago this month, COVID-19 was spreading from the coasts into the nation’s heartland and states began taking measures in an attempt to mitigate the spread.

“It was clear that after we got into March that this is a thing, and it’s an important thing,” Gov. Tony Evers recalled during a recent WisPolitics.com luncheon. “At that point in time, states all around us were going to a different place as far as making sure people are safe and safer at home.”

On March 12, Evers issued his first public health emergency, limiting public gathering to 250 people or less and authorizing the Wisconsin adjutant general to activate the National Guard to help address the newly declared pandemic.

That was followed by then-President Trump’s national health emergency declaration on March 13, the same day Evers ordered schools to cease in-person classes within one week.

Additional restrictions on in-person gatherings and businesses trickled out before Evers on March 24 issued his “Safer at Home” order. Face-to-face social activity along with commerce and health care services deemed non-essential ground to a halt, leading to historic levels of unemployment and palpable anxiety among the public.

And while government was making moves to get ahead of the virus, people flocked to grocery stores to wait, sometimes for hours, in checkout lines to buy food and rationed — if available — supplies of toilet paper, paper towels, disinfectants and hand sanitizer.

As hospitals struggled to provide workers with personal protective equipment, businesses donated N95 face masks and Wisconsinites began sewing face coverings to give to health care workers and others.

Meanwhile, downtowns and main streets across the state largely emptied, rush-hour traffic became a memory and eerie quiet was pervasive. Cases continued to climb.

“I remember at one point in time, we had 60 people in the state of Wisconsin who were identified having COVID-19, and I thought ‘OK, this is going to be a big deal in the state of Wisconsin.’ And here we are a year later and we have 500-600 a day and we think we’re plateauing and going down,” Evers said.

State officials now count more than 6,470 dead from COVID-19. Trade associations predict scores of small businesses will be closed for good. And politicians continue to bicker over masks and who should be in line for a vaccine. But as Evers said in noting good ratings for Wisconsin’s vaccine rollout, “We’re getting there. … People have to be patient.”

Evers and the state Department of Health Services announced today that about 1 million Wisconsinites have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine with more than 500,000 individuals having completed a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine series.

While Evers’ early moves were met with public support, political fault lines began to emerge as the pandemic stretched on.

GOP legislative leaders have consistently criticized Evers’ handling of the pandemic, accusing him of taking a go-it-alone approach. They’ve also charged Evers has exceeded his authority in issuing multiple public health emergencies stemming from the pandemic.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, earlier this year labeled Evers a dictator. And then-Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, in an April 2020 “UpFront” interview slammed Evers, saying the first-term governor “completely circumvented” the rule-making process with his mandates.

Republicans in general have complained that Evers’ approach is hurting employers. By the end of April hundreds of demonstrators flocked to the Capitol to protest the “Safer at Home” order.

Vos said Evers’ repeated calls for legislative special sessions to address the pandemic were unnecessary before the GOP leader set about a series of gavel-in gavel-out sessions.

“There’s no need for the Assembly to come in and have politicians grandstand on the issue,” Vos said at the time.

Later, an October WisPolitics review found the Wisconsin Legislature was the least active of all full-time state legislatures in the nation once the pandemic started.

Evers said state lawmakers caused a “political mess” after they sought to strike down his orders.

The state Supreme Court on May 13 struck down Evers’ safer-at-home mandate with a 4-3 vote from the majority conservative justices. Said Evers at the time: “Republicans own that chaos.”

At that time, 421 deaths had been recorded. After, the state’s rising caseload and death toll landed Wisconsin on national travel quarantine lists two days before it surpassed 1,000 COVID-19 related deaths on July 30.

However, Evers said the state was “in a good place” around the end of May and he was ready to reopen the state in a measured way, but “suddenly everything was wide open.”

“We spent a lot of time fighting in court to make sure that our state was safe,” he said, adding he believes his orders saved lives.

Evers said the low point for the pandemic in Wisconsin came in November when the state was one of the worst when it came to per-capita COVID-19 infections and deaths.

“Well it was in November, actually just before the election when we were the worst, if not the worst in the nation, as far as getting these notices every week,” Evers said. “We were getting these notices every week, all the governors were, from the government and those maps on our state were all red, and the red didn’t indicate Republican red, it was red for people in every county suffering from this virus, so that was a very scary time.”

Added Evers: “And, you know, it was at the same time where I was getting a lot of pushback about wearing the masks and wanting to really take care of the issue, making sure people didn’t gather in large groups. It’s really basic things that we kept getting pushback from.”

Evers said Trump’s dismissive attitude toward mask wearing was echoed by other Republicans around the country.

“That’s one of the reasons I am convinced it became such a long, drawn-out affair,’’ Evers said. “People didn’t believe it was a thing, but it was a thing.’’

While Vos has encouraged wearing masks, he said Evers was acting like a “dictator” with his mask mandates this January.

“I believe wearing a mask should be something that isn’t a political statement,” he said. “It should not be something that requires the government to mandate it in a way that the governor seems to say that’s the only way that’s effective.”

Vos said Evers could have turned over a new leaf this year, but instead demonstrated the same mentality with his most recent public health order and mask mandate on Feb. 4.

“Instead, he again chose a go-it-alone approach,” Vos said in response to the order. “It’s just the way this governor works, and it’s disappointing and it’s undemocratic.”

Vos had in late November joined Dem U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan — a friend from Pocan’s time in the Legislature — in a public service announcement to speak about the importance of preventative measures including wearing masks, hand washing, practicing social distancing and staying home whenever possible.

“After another election, it’s clear we have differences, but we can also agree,” Vos said in the ad. “We can still live our lives and be sensible and safe.”

Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, D-Mason, told a recent WisPolitics.com luncheon when the pandemic first hit she was concerned whether the governments would have the capacity to get people the help they needed, particularly in areas like her far northern Wisconsin district.

On a personal level, she said she felt somewhat sheltered in her sparsely populated area, “but I realized if I need help it may be difficult to get.”

She noted the experience opened her up further to challenges different parts of the state face.

“For every person, they need to count on their neighbors, local units of government, the facilities … everybody needs to count on at least something being there to help them,” she said. “And I know that after we’ve gone through this year, we realize that access to help is inconsistent.”

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said what struck him looking back was how quickly life changed.

“There’s nobody that hasn’t been impacted, and there are people that have been dramatically impacted more,’’ he said. “And I thought about how difficult it was going to be to explain to people who’ve lived life one way that things were changing and the measures that were going to be needed in place were going to alter and dramatically change things.”

He said not having a centralized, trusted voice at the federal level made dealing with the pandemic more difficult and helped lead to polarization over dealing with the public health threat.

Evers also said a more consistent approach between federal and state governments would have helped reduce the death toll and economic impact from the pandemic.

“If it would have been a wholly different world, we would have had consistent leadership at the national level talking about following the science and all the things we know are important,” Evers said. Instead, he said the federal government approach “left it up to states and individual governments to make do.”