Coronavirus infections are crowding hospitals across the Midwest ahead of an election that could see the region decide the presidency and control of the Senate.
But the wave of new cases hasn’t stopped governors and state legislators from pressing on with reopening plans. Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and other states are loosening restrictions or weighing changes, just as they experience new spikes and as colder weather pushes people indoors — a convergence that could deliver a repeat of the summer’s deadliest months.
“We can’t seem to learn our lesson,” said Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health. “We touch the stove, it’s hot, we burn ourselves, but we think if we touch it again, we’ll be fine.”
As Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and the Dakotas all report record or near-record numbers of new infections, the region may be a harbinger of what’s in store for the rest of the country. And the wave of cases, along with President Donald Trump’s brush with the disease, are again putting the pandemic front and center in key swing states despite the president’s efforts to declare it all but over and urge Americans to get on with their lives.
In Iowa, which is seeing more than 1,000 new cases a day, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has refused to mandate face coverings, which the White House coronavirus task force recommended. Reynolds instead rolled back rules on quarantining and allowed college bars to reopen despite outbreaks on the state’s biggest campuses.
In Wisconsin, the Republican-controlled legislature filed a motion on Friday in support of a lawsuit seeking to abolish Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' statewide mask order even as the state sees more than 2,000 new cases a day, hospitals are reaching capacity and the percent of people testing positive is more than triple the recommended rate. Their motion came just hours after Trump announced he had tested positive for Covid-19 and canceled two rallies planned in the battleground state. That day, Wisconsin’s senior senator, Ron Johnson, attended an Oktoberfest-themed fundraiser Friday night while he was awaiting his test results — and later learned he tested positive.
In North Dakota, where the number of active cases doubled in September and ICU beds are close to capacity, Republican Gov. Doug Burgum bowed to public pressure and rescinded an order that required close contacts of infected patients to quarantine. The state’s top health officer resigned in protest, the third health officer to quit during the pandemic.
“As much as people want to deny it Covid-19 is still very present,” Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Monday. "[Michigan’s] Upper Peninsula is in very serious condition right now. We know Wisconsin dropped their guard and they are a national hot spot.”
The surge of cases in the Midwest, fueled by Labor Day gatherings and students returning to class and college campuses, has public health experts pleading for new safeguards before an anticipated explosion in the fall and winter. Yet their warnings are going largely unheeded — and not just among red-state governors. Nevada, Wyoming, Florida and Massachusetts also are loosening restrictions to restart their economies and feed fatigued residents' appetite for a return to normal life.
Governors in the states say their residents have learned to live with the threat and know how to stay safe. And they warn economies can't survive with too many constraints, especially with prospects dwindling for another congressional bailout package.
Nevada Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak announced last week that he is lifting restrictions on youth and adult sports and raising the limit on public gatherings from 50 to 250 people even as the average number of new daily infections is up roughly 75 percent in the last two weeks, arguing that conventions, conferences and trade shows are the lifeblood of the state’s economy.
“The four miles of Las Vegas Boulevard, the Strip, is the fuel that keeps the engine of this state running,” Sisolak said. “We’re doing what we can to provide a safe environment for our residents and at the same time keep the economy open.”
Elsewhere, Tennessee, which just had its deadliest month of the pandemic, ended all statewide restrictions on businesses and gatherings even as the state continues to average more than 1,000 new infections per day.
“One of the things I’m worried about is that our businesses aren’t operating fully because that drives economic recovery and people’s livelihoods are at stake,” said Republican Gov. Bill Lee. “We’re six months into this pandemic and Tennesseans know how to assess risk and how to operate safely.”
In Florida, a must-win for Trump, GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis recently removed all restrictions, surprising local officials after repeated struggles to keep control over the virus. Not only did bars and restaurants reopen but DeSantis threatened to withhold funding from school districts that did not send kids back to the classroom even as new daily infections reached their highest levels in more than two weeks.
But the Midwest has seen some of the most heated fights over when and how fast to lift health restrictions. Michigan and Wisconsin's Democratic governors have tried to impose public health precautions, only to have been blocked in court by Republican lawmakers. On Friday, Michigan’s Supreme Court struck down Whitmer’s pandemic orders as unconstitutional, effectively eliminating rules around masks and social gatherings. The state’s health department moved to reinstate the orders on Monday, teeing up more battles in the weeks ahead.
GOP lawmakers have also joined lawsuits to strip away public health measures in Wisconsin. The state’s top court in May found that Evers overstepped his authority and struck down his emergency orders, a decision that Evers now says is partly responsible for the state’s new spike in cases.
“It [opened] our economy at a rate unparalleled by any state in the nation,” he said during his weekly press conference.“We’re nine months into this pandemic. It’s not slowing down, it’s picking up speed.”
Cyrus Shahpar, a former emergency response leader at the CDC who now leads the outbreak tracker Covid Exit Strategy, said the officials’ moves aren’t surprising given the level of frustration and fatigue people feel.
”People are tired of staying inside,” he said. “And the longer we go on, the more we incur irreversible damage in some sectors. Can a restaurant operating at 25 percent capacity, for example, be economically viable?”
Shahpar said that Trump’s constant promises that a Covid vaccine will be approved in a matter of weeks and widely distributed by the end of the year — claims his own top health officials don’t support— may also be fueling the trend.
“It may increase people’s risk tolerance if they think a magic bullet is around the corner,” he said, stressing that the scientific community believes neither that a vaccine is a magic bullet nor that it’s right around the corner.
As small outbreaks that began in K-12 schools and on college campuses spread to the general population, infecting older, more vulnerable adults, hospitalizations are reaching their highest level in three weeks and steadily increasing, according to the Covid Tracking Project. And with frigid just a few weeks away in large parts of the Midwest, public health experts are warning that loosening restrictions could be a disaster.
“We’re going into the fall with twice the baseline of cases we had going into the summer,” warned Brown University's Jha. “And all of the advice we’ve been giving people — like doing everything outdoors — is going to become harder, if not impossible.”