In 3 Key States That Elected Trump, Bitter Divisions on Reopening

A shuttered coffee shop across from the Wisconsin State Capitol, in Madison, May 14, 2020. (Lauren Justice/The New York Times)
A shuttered coffee shop across from the Wisconsin State Capitol, in Madison, May 14, 2020. (Lauren Justice/The New York Times)

WAUKESHA, Wis. — In Wisconsin, residents woke up to a state of confusion Thursday after the conservative majority on the state Supreme Court sided with the Republican majority in the Legislature on Wednesday night, overturning a statewide stay-at-home order by Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat.

In Michigan, hundreds of protesters, many of them armed, turned out at the state Capitol in a drenching rainstorm. The state closed the building in advance and canceled the legislative session, rather than risk a repeat of an April protest in which angry protesters carrying long guns crowded inside.

In Pennsylvania, some Republican lawmakers urged defiance of the Democratic governor’s orders to keep nonessential businesses closed, and President Donald Trump flew to Allentown for a politically charged visit to a medical supply facility.

The response to the coronavirus in those three states, which determined the 2016 presidential election and could strongly influence the one in November, is becoming a confused and agitated blend of health guidance, protest and partisan politics — leaving residents to fend for themselves.

“My anxiety for this pandemic is not having a unified plan, that we’re all on the same page, and listening to science and the same rules,” said Jamie O’Brien, 40, who owns a hair salon in Madison, Wisconsin, that remains closed because of a local stay-at-home order.

Across Wisconsin, the court ruling left some residents in a festive mood, heading directly to one of the state’s many taverns to celebrate. Others were determined to stay home, worried that it was too soon to return to crowded restaurants and shops.

“You have the one group that’s like, ‘Yay!’” said Patty Schachtner, a Democratic state senator from western Wisconsin. “And the other group is like, ‘Man, life just got complicated.’”

It was an unsettling microcosm of a country increasingly unable to separate bitter political divisions from plans to battle a deadly disease. Democratic governors in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, backed by public health experts, have urged caution before reopening. Republican legislatures in the states have pushed in the opposite direction, citing economic necessity and personal freedom.

The conflict between those goals was apparent in Wisconsin on Thursday, after the state Supreme Court, in effect, freed residents to return to pre-coronavirus life. Evers had issued an order in late March instructing bars, hair salons and other nonessential businesses to close, but the court rejected an order that extended restrictions until May 26.

In an interview, Evers expressed frustration and deep concern about the safety of Wisconsin residents in the days ahead. “We are in a new chaotic time,” he said.

Asked what residents of the state should now do, Evers said, “My advice is this: Be safer at home. Keep on doing what you have been doing.”

More than 11,000 coronavirus cases have been identified in Wisconsin as of Thursday night, a New York Times database shows, and at least 434 people have died.

A Marquette Law School poll released Tuesday found that 69% of respondents believed it was appropriate to restrict public gatherings and close schools and businesses. Its poll in late March found that 86% were in favor of restrictions.

Ann Hall, who owns a beloved bistro in New Richmond, Wisconsin, with her husband, could have been celebrating a day after the court freed her to reopen her dining room to customers.

Instead, she is debating when it will be safe enough to do so. Since Evers closed nonessential businesses, she has been offering carryout and operating on a truncated schedule, with a smaller staff. Until there is a vaccine for the coronavirus, Hall might keep the doors to her 65-seat dining room closed.

“Everybody keeps saying they want the freedom to decide to go out,” she said. “Well, I have the freedom to decide that I don’t want to open my restaurant.”

The six largest cities in Wisconsin remain under stay-at-home orders. After the ruling Wednesday, local health officers and mayors issued their own directives, many keeping bars and other businesses closed, and banning large gatherings.

“We want to let the people of Dane County know that, as far as the guidelines, when you wake up tomorrow it’s going to be the same as when you woke up this morning,” Joe Parisi, the county executive, said Wednesday night at a news conference in Madison, the state’s capital.

Wisconsin has been showing signs of improvement over the past week, including in the Green Bay area, which had three meatpacking outbreaks and the state’s highest per capita case numbers.

Michigan, which had perhaps the country’s most alarming spike in cases outside of New York, has seen steady improvement for more than a month. The state had about 50,000 known cases and about 4,800 deaths as of Thursday night. Michigan officials have been reporting about 400 new cases each day, down from more than 1,700 on some days in early April.

On Thursday, protesters gathered in Lansing to demand that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reopen the state. Members of the crowd talked of conspiracy theories about the origin and the treatment of the coronavirus, and decried the development of vaccines to treat it.

But even that crowd showed the state’s divisions. Some protesters were armed with Glock handguns and AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, while one counterprotester wore a black “Nerf Militia” T-shirt and waved a Nerf gun while railing against Trump and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser.

“If America gets back on its feet, I think it will all turn out all right,” said Denny McDowell, 75, who said he was concerned about losing civil liberties. “But the Democrats are going to want to lock down the state as long as they can and that could hurt.”

In Pennsylvania, reports of new cases have largely followed the national curve, with an extended downward-slanted plateau. More than 63,000 cases had been identified there as of Thursday night, along with about 4,300 deaths. The state’s drop in new case reports has accelerated in recent days, though concerning rates of growth continue in some rural counties.

The confrontation over the state’s coronavirus response became particularly charged over the past week, as an array of lawmakers and local officials pledged to defy the stay-at-home orders issued by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat. Republican lawmakers pushed local officials statewide to commit to disobeying the governor’s “arbitrary and capricious decisions,” as officials in a growing number of counties had indicated over the past weekend that they were likely to take such actions.

But at a news conference Monday, the governor condemned officials pledging defiance as “engaging in behavior that is both selfish and unsafe” and warned of an array of penalties, including the loss of licenses to businesses that break the law and the withdrawal of certain funding to county governments.

Many of the counties soon backed down, leaving Republican lawmakers to push bills that would achieve the same thing, exempting businesses from state stay-at-home orders and moving powers to the counties from the governor. Those aimed most squarely at taking away gubernatorial powers are almost certain to be vetoed. But the partisan lines on reopening have been thickly drawn.

“It has clearly hampered the response effort,” said Gary Eichelberger, a Republican and chairman of the Cumberland County commission near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He said much of the opposition to the shutdown was now suffused with politics.

“They’re all up for reelection; we’re very conscious of that,” Eichelberger said of the lawmakers. He had been in discussions with the governor’s office about the reopening timeline but saw little to gain in a confrontational approach. When his colleagues on the commission, which has a Republican majority, pointed out publicly that they did not have the power to unilaterally defy the governor, they were met with a flood of hate mail, which to Eichelberger clearly seemed to have been part of an organized campaign.

“Are these folks interested in scoring cheap political points and telling people what they want to hear,” he asked, “or are they focused on finding a real solution?”

Politics aside, many people realized they were largely on their own. Along Bluemound Road in Brookfield, Wisconsin, few stores or restaurants had opened to customers, except for takeout, as of Thursday afternoon.

At Picardy Shoe Parlour, which sells women’s shoes and clothing, doors were open for the first time in weeks. The store owner, Russell Levin, wore a mask while waiting for business, but said he would not insist that customers do so. A nearby table held boxes of complimentary disposable masks and gloves.

“I’ve been in business for 35 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said of the economic disruption. Because his customers tend to be over 40, Levin will now set aside every Monday as “appointment only,” for customers who do not feel safe in a crowd.

Levin, who said he was not politically active and considered himself an independent, said he did not think Evers was acting politically. “He has to protect the state,” he said. As for himself, he will not be going out to dine or for drinks until the pandemic eases further. He said he would try to support those businesses in other ways.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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