Wisconsin Is Now the Epicenter for Coronavirus in America

The inevitable result of months of legislative inaction has arrived. What now?

The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

From the Centers for Disease Control, as of Oct. 3, showing the number of cases in the last seven days. Wisconsin has reported more than 17,000 new cases in that time. More than 50 people have died from the virus in the last three days.

It’s one thing to become the center of the outbreak in March or April when so much about the deadly virus was still unknown. It’s quite another to be there now, nearly seven full months into the national emergency of the covid-19 pandemic. Wisconsin is there now, and there’s no sign of slowing down. 

In the last week, Wisconsin posted truly stratospheric numbers, making the outbreak we’re experiencing one of the worst in the world. If Wisconsin were a country, it would have the third worst number of new cases per capita over the past week. 

The more than 17,000 new cases from past week puts Wisconsin in rare and dangerous territory. Only the nation’s two most populous states — Texas (population: 29 million) and California (39 million) — saw as many new cases in that time, and they each have a fraction of the per capita cases Wisconsin does at the moment. 

Wisconsin, a state of about 5.8 million people, saw thousands more new cases than regional neighbors in Illinois (population: 12.7 million, about 15,000 new cases), Michigan (10 million, less than 7,000 new cases) or Minnesota (5.6 million, about 7,000 new cases). 

Hospitalizations in Wisconsin reached a pandemic-high 683 covid-19 patients hospitalized across the state on Sept. 30. Less than two weeks prior, that number was 342. 

Data from the Wisconsin Hospital Association.

In the month of September alone, 46,671 people in Wisconsin were infected with the coronavirus. On Sept. 1, the 7-day average of new cases per day was 727. On Oct. 1, that number was 2,405. And with no new efforts to combat the virus, and positivity rates still unreasonably high, there’s no sign this is slowing down.

From the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

The outbreak is at its worst right now in the northeast and the Fox Valley, home to three of the five worst metro areas in the nation for new cases — Oshkosh-Neenah, Green Bay, and Appleton.

Hospital workers in the region are sounding increasingly dire alarms. Some city officials, like Oshkosh Mayor Lori Palmeri, are coming across as downright despondent, telling The New York Times, “I’m honestly not sure that anything we do right now will make a difference. It’s too late.”

I’m not going to lie; that quote broke me a little bit. 

I’m running out of ways to say the Republican-led State Legislature has failed our state and that people like Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald are responsible for the death and devastation we are seeing now. They sued to control this. They’re doing nothing. People are giving up.

But it bears repeating, because the spike we’re experiencing right now is the very reason I’ve been hammering on this issue of our ongoing lack of plan for months. This is the situation I was worried about, and here we are, facing the inevitable. This virus is not going to disappear on its own. 

Wisconsin is unique in its approach to combating the coronavirus. It is the only U.S. state where the Legislature controls the statewide pandemic response. Since suing for and obtaining this control, the Republicans running this branch of government have not done a single thing. That was more than 140 days ago. They have not passed a bill in more than 170 days. 

With its lone piece of legislation, Wisconsin has had the “least active full-time state legislative body in the country” since the pandemic arrived in America, according to a new analysis from WisPolitics. No other full-time legislature in the nation has convened fewer than nine times, and Michigan has held 58 floor sessions since March 12. Hybrid full-time/part-time legislatures in neighboring states have also met regularly. Minnesota has held 62 sessions and Iowa has held 17. Wisconsin Republicans running the Legislature and guiding the state’s unique approach have been remarkably committed to inaction. 

Earlier this week, Democrats in the Joint Finance Committee ripped GOP leadership for their inaction, this time because of adjourning a Tuesday meeting of the powerful committee without addressing the state’s covid spike at all

Democrats on the committee, including Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee), LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), Jon Erpenbach (D-Madison), and Debra Kolste (D-Janesville), said “safety nets passed this spring will expire at the end of the year, now less than 100 days away.” That seems like a real problem, and something worth addressing in the only substantive meeting Republicans put on the legislative calendar between now and the end of the year (they have zero meetings scheduled after Oct. 7). 

And so now — now! — instead of taking action to combat the virus directly or even taking time in meetings of powerful committees to even discuss further legislation that could help hurting families and businesses around the state, the Legislature is once again going to court, this time in an attempt to overturn the extension of the governor’s mask requirement. Really.

The Legislature could go into session and vote down the mask requirement at any time, but that’s not how their leadership is choosing to govern. The Republicans running the Legislature are instead having far-right groups like Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty go to court and do their work for them so they don’t have to put vulnerable representatives (of which there are many!) in the crosshairs for a controversial vote during campaign season, since masks are favored by nearly 70% of voters

Not only are legislative Republicans abdicating their responsibilities as leaders in this moment of crisis by disappearing for months on end, they’re now just completely refusing to legislate entirely, instead using the courts to fight policy battles on their behalf. It is as cowardly as it is shameful.

And what is it they are fighting for again? Oh right, to put more people’s lives at risk by getting rid of a simple life-saving policy. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington projections say that wearing masks could reduce the number of projected deaths in Wisconsin by about 1,000 between now and the end of 2020. We could save 1,000 lives by wearing a mask when we got to the grocery store, but apparently that’s too much of a sacrifice for some of the people in charge. 


Many legislative Republican leaders represent districts where some of the state’s worst outbreaks are happening. Senate President Roger Roth resides in Appleton and represents the 19th Senate District, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke is in Kaukauna, representing the 5th Assembly District, and Joint Finance Committee Co-Chair John Nygren is in Marinette, representing the 89th Assembly District. What message is their inaction sending to their constituents? Do they not care what happens to their neighbors? Do they care if the hospitals in their district are being overrun? If one of the world’s worst outbreaks happening in their own backyard won’t bring them to act, what will?

While Vos, Fitzgerald and these legislative Republican leaders bear the overwhelming majority of the responsibility for the state Wisconsin finds itself in, they do share some of the blame. 

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People, yes, have been careless, like those who wanted to “make it feel like game day” for the Packers’ first home game on Sept. 19. But casting blame on the actions of individuals over those of policy-makers shields blame from those in power who should be responsibly leading the state toward a safe and healthy environment where the pandemic is at least under control. And those legislative leaders in charge of the situation have set no statewide standards for bars (beyond the mask requirement) and have provided no further support (beyond barely adequate legislation from April) to help create a situation where people aren’t forced to make impossible decisions, so it’s hard to blame businesses for making those impossible decisions, whether the outcome is to stay open or to shut down (which we could see more and more of as winter approaches). It’s not their fault their policy-makers have failed them.  

Gov. Evers deserves some blame here, too. He has one hand tied behind his back after the State Supreme Court ruling that shifted control of statewide response to the Legislature, no doubt, but he certainly could be making more aggressive attempts to implement policies to combat the virus. Just as he has with the mask requirement, he could order something new —  restrict large gatherings; limit capacities for bars, restaurants and businesses; do something to steer schools toward virtual instruction — and hope legislative Republicans are too chickenshit to vote it down. 

He could also (safely!) pay a visit to hospitals and health centers in parts of the state experiencing some of the worst outbreaks to (safely!!!) show support for the frontline healthcare workers who we’re all relying on so much right now. He could call another special session and force the Legislature to do their jobs. He could make some big, overt public invitation to legislative leaders, asking them to (safely!!!!!) come to a “Pandemic Summit” (or something) to reach across the aisle, roll up their sleeves, and get things done. There’s a lot more the governor could be trying.

And while I don’t like to be critical of my friends in the media (another industry facing a host of impossible decisions), it baffles me that at this point — with circumstances this dire, with no end to this worsening situation in sight — that we’re not seeing every news outlet with an editorial voice denouncing the inaction of the Republican-led Wisconsin State Legislature in the strongest words possible and calling on them to do their jobs. What more do we need to see?

Because what’s happening across the state right now is happening chiefly because of what Wisconsin Republicans have done. This is the part of the crisis that is of their making. This is the outcome their lack of plan has manifested. The severity of the outbreak we’re now experiencing was entirely preventable. It didn’t have to be like this, and the state GOP deserves the lion’s share of the blame. 

We’ve seen all around the country and the world for months on end how policy can make a real difference in combating this virus. It’s time for someone in Wisconsin to step up and make a real difference now. It’s not too late.

Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record.

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