Wisconsin is facing one of the worst coronavirus situations in the country, but that wasn’t an issue President Donald Trump devoted time to while visiting the state just days before it will help decide his political fate.
Instead, he raved about the size of the crowd at his rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin and vented about a recent ABC News/ Washington Post poll that showed him trailing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden by 17 points in the state, far worse than other polls that show a more narrow race.
Before the event was over he had attacked Biden for talking so much about COVID-19 and reiterated his own misleading claims about the pandemic, broadly stating that “the reason we have so many cases is because we test” and falsely asserting that Wisconsin is “already in a lock down.”
“Hey governor, you gotta open up your state here,” Trump told the crowd to cheers. “You gotta open it up.”
Contrary to Trump’s “open up” calls Friday, the state’s been far from locked up for months. A GOP-led court challenge caused the state’s supreme court to strike down the state’s safer-at-home order back in May.
The coronavirus has had a devastating impact on the key Midwestern swing state, and this month both cases and deaths have spiked. Cases surged to a new one-day high of 5,262 on Tuesday, according to state health data, just days before both Trump and Biden visited the state on Friday.
“Right now Wisconsin’s in its darkest days of the pandemic,” said Dr. Jeff Pothof, chief quality officer at University of Wisconsin Health and emergency medicine physician, who described the state as being “in the eye of the hurricane that is COVID-19.”
In the final days of the presidential campaign, polls have shown a tense race between Biden and Trump in the state that the president carried in 2016 and will likely need to win again for a second term. But the coronavirus is looming large in an area that has been a major site of political fights about coronavirus restrictions throughout the pandemic between state Republicans and the Democratic governor.
Locally in the Green Bay area, Aurora BayCare Medical Center, Bellin Health, Prevea Health and HSHS St. Mary’s and St. Vincent Hospitals greeted the president's rally with a joint statement making clear their concerns as the pandemic tore through the area.
“It is more important now than ever to avoid large crowds, especially here in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where we are seeing some of the most rapid spread of COVID-19 in the United States,” the health care systems warned. “Any kind of large gathering could have additional negative effects on a community already fighting communitywide spread.”
Biden appeared in Wisconsin hours after Trump for an event in a hangar at the Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport. The speech from the former vice president, who has taken Trump to task over his much criticized approach to the pandemic, followed his visits to Iowa and Minnesota earlier in the day. Biden’s events have also been much smaller than the president’s as the campaign makes a point of following public health precautions, something Trump has routinely mocked his opponent for.
The former vice president wore a mask as he spoke in Milwaukee, where the small audience could be seen sitting in chairs inside circles, socially distanced from one another.
“This week, Wisconsin like other states set a new record for daily cases. Hospitals are running short on beds, just had to open a field hospital,” Biden said. “That's what we're facing.”
A spokesman for the Milwaukee County executive’s office made clear in a statement that the Biden event would be “a small, private meeting,” where “organizers are aware that Wisconsin is a COVID-19 hotspot and have indicated that the meeting will include a small number of invited guests and staff well below the City of Milwaukee’s limit on gatherings of this type.”
And a Biden aide said the campaign was “taking extra precautions with the VP’s travel to Wisconsin given the public health situation.”
During a media briefing Friday morning, Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary Designee Andrea Palm warned that “hospitals in every region of our state are experiencing staffing strains, all while COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to rise.” Earlier this month, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers announced a field hospital located at the Wisconsin State Fair Park would be put into use as the state’s coronavirus fight took a turn for the worse.
Courtney Parella, the deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign, maintained in a statement to The Daily Beast that “we take strong precautions for our campaign events,” pointing to temperature checks and masks being given to attendees, even though mask use is spotty and social distancing is often not practiced at the campaign events, including in Wisconsin.
And as Trump spoke to the crowd in Wisconsin Friday, even as some in the hotspot state showed clear alarm over the large-scale event, the president defied expert assessments once again to declare an end to the virus, baselessly claiming that “with or without the vaccine we're rounding the turn.”
“I just want normal life,” Trump called out shortly after.
Any event that draws a large number of people together who then gather closely and largely skip wearing masks can be super spreader events, Pothof said, comparing it to “like throwing gasoline on the fire at the same time our healthcare workers are exhausted. They have given it their all and our hospitals are about to bust.”
“These large gatherings, it just seems unfathomable that in a country like the United States where we have a public health crisis, where hospitals are at capacity, where there's a field hospital open in the state, that any group would consider having an event that would cause people to gather in large numbers, not spaced and not masked,” Pothof told The Daily Beast.
In the months since the safer-at-home order was dismantled by the state’s supreme court, Evers has implemented a statewide mask order and pushed other statewide restrictions but has still faced vocal dissent from Republicans as others in the state have challenged those efforts in court.
Trump has focused on Wisconsin in October as he returned to the trail following being hospitalized for COVID-19, and before he even took the stage Friday his campaign announced he’d return for a rally in Kenosha on the eve of Election Day. His stop in Wisconsin on Friday came in between visits to the other critical Midwestern states of Michigan and Minnesota.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the Trump campaign tried to hold one of their major pandemic rallies at the airport last week but was barred because of concerns stemming from such a large event at the site.
Even as the 2020 election comes to a head in the state, the realities of the pandemic on ground aren’t being lost in the closing days of the campaign. Malia Jones, an associate scientist in health geography for the applied population laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was blunt about the state’s coronavirus standing, calling it “really grim.”
“It’s horrible,” Jones told The Daily Beast. “This is certainly the worst that we have seen of the pandemic so far.”