(May 8, 2020) Wisconsin business owners protested the state’s lockdown last week, pleading with Governor Tony Evers and a legislative committee to open the state for business. Dozens of people testified to ask the governor to let them re-open their businesses. Male and female proprietors and employers detailed the difficulties they’ve faced, along with the ongoing economic damage that they and their employees, along with most of the state, are suffering as the lockdown continues.
Wisconsin has one of the most aggressive – some might say “Draconian” – lockdown policies in the country. While some states like Texas have already opened up their businesses (with some limitations), most of Wisconsin is, for the most part, largely locked down altogether at least until the end of May. Though businesses termed “essential” by lock down orders remain open – such as Wal-Mart, Mennard’s, and grocery and drug stores, the rest of the state is all but boarded up or severely restricted. Unemployment in the Badger state has now reached 19.5 percent – 5 points higher than the U.S. unemployment rate – and is expected to reach 30 percent by June.
“Wisconsin law gives the Governor and the Wisconsin DHS the authority to develop emergency measures and enforce rules and orders to protect the public during a health crisis,” said Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling in a statement, reported WISN 12 News on Friday, April 17. “However, state law does not have the power to supersede or suspend the Constitutional rights of American citizens.”
Door County Lockdown Blues
A co-owner of Foremost Management Services, Greg Stillman, has operated hotels and seasonal rental properties in Door County for nearly 30 years. Testifying by Skype, he gave the governor and the committee a glimpse of the facts on the ground for the hospitality industry.
“A life’s work came to a screeching halt in a 48-hour time frame,” said Mr. Stillman. “That’s hard to swallow.”
Greg Stillman also serves as chairman of the Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association. He added that as many as 45 percent of the state’s hotels closed. Many of them which are open are seeing tiny occupancy rates. So covering payroll and bills is impossible.
100-Year-old Business Threatened
Troy Berg said his Dane Manufacturing has been operating in Dane County (north of Madison) for a century, but his business’ future in the lockdown is threatened. In March, as the stay-at-home orders went into effect, manufacturing sales declined 15 percent. This month, they’re down 30 percent, Mr. Berg told the committee. The company hasn’t yet cut staff, he said, because the federal Paycheck Protection Program has helped keep his 1,400 workers on the job. Mr. Berg said June looks worse than April. June is when his federal “protection” is set to come to an end.
“We need certainty,” he said, and that’s why he supports WMC’s Back to Business plan: “It’s a straight forward approach that tackles the re-opening without throwing caution to the wind.”
Business plans and Risk Scores
Wisconsin Spotlight (a right-leaning publication, to put it mildly, and more about that later re: toxic state politics) reported that WMC’s plan uses real-time data on the virus and available health care resources in the various regions of the state to assign risk scores to businesses. Unlike Gov. Evers’ Safer at Home orders, WMC’s plan isn’t one-size-fits all, according to Wisconsin Spotlight. The WMC plan calculates population density, infection rates in communities and regions, and the number of health care resources where a business operates. Firms with higher risk factors would need to take more preventative steps to remain open, including reducing the number of customers allowed into a business at one time.
More Hospitals than Covid Cases?
WMC Executive VP of Government Relations, Scott Manley, told committee members that risk is different from community to community and from region to region.
“Four of seven health care readiness regions in Wisconsin have more hospitals located in them than COVID-19 cases,” said Mr. Manley.
When Rep. Marisabel Cabrera (D-Milwaukee) suggested the WMC plan would incorporate Gov. Evers’ Badger Bounce Back, Mr. Manley disagreed: “Just to be crystal clear, Representative, our plan would be a replacement of the Badger Bounce Back plan, which we think is flawed for several reasons.”
Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) said: “I want to point out that this [WMC plan] is not legislation. This was not drafted by legislators. It was drafted by businesses.”
Lives, Livelihoods, and Politics
Rep. Tod Ohnstad (D-Kenosha), asked business owners about the “dangers of going back to work too soon.” He said if virus cases rise again, it could cause the “unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of more Wisconsinites.”
Mr. Berg reminded Rep. Ohnstad that, as of May 3, there were 316 COVID-19-related deaths in Wisconsin.
“At some point we have to deal with the difference between lives and livelihoods,” the business owner said. “If we let this go much longer than the end of May, we’re not going to be here for the 1,400 people who work here (at his manufacturing plants).”
WEDC chief Missy Hughes, who backed Gov. Evers’ plan, compared re-opening to a relay race, asserting that it was critical all the players worked cautiously together so no one “dropped the baton.”
Ms. Hughes told committee members that customers willingly want their temperatures taken before they enter businesses. Empower Wisconsin, another right-leaning publication, reported that she said: “They’re excited to see whether they have a fever.”
Wisconsin Business Owners protest Lockdown
More to the point, Ms. Hughes was asked how WEDC determined essential and nonessential business. She had no clear answer for that all-important question, which can determine whether one’s business lives or dies. The question was made further poignant by thousands of Wisconsinites who protested the lockdown at the state capitol in Madison on April 30 with signs emblazoned with legends such as, “We are all essential! and “My life, my choice to work!”
Lockdown Debate hampered by Political Acrimony
Greatly compounding the difficulty of any reasonable person or group’s presenting any well-reasoned risk-benefit analysis of lockdown vs. no lockdown and offering a well-tempered solution, is the state’s toxic political climate. Paradoxically, in this state which prides itself (or used to, if all is in doubt now) for its hardworking and reasonable Midwestern people, Wisconsin’s political fights in recent years have been nearly as acrimonious as those seen daily in Washington D.C.
Wisconsin’s Republican representatives have worked hard since Tony Evers was elected governor last fall to essentially neuter the office entirely. There is no overestimating the power the republicans’ long-standing political majority in the legislature has brought them in the state where the Republican party was born – in Ripon, Wisc., more than 100 years ago. Republican legislators have aggressively cut off Gov. Evers’ initiatives and efforts virtually every chance they’ve had.
Meanwhile, the state’s previous governor, Rep. Scott Walker, faced the wrath of democrats in a heated recall election after he worked to virtually destroy the state’s teacher’s union and neuter other public employee unions. Mr. Walker narrowly weathered his recall, but the state’s political climate never recovered from his toxic reign. Well known to have been bankrolled largely by the infamous Koch brothers, it was easy for many Wisconsinites to see the former governor as a case study in conflict of interest, and in turn to feel that all republicans were to be suspected of being controlled by outside money.
And so it goes on in the Badger state. Now, sadly — for anyone interested in a reasonable solution — feelings or opinions about the lockdown in Wisconsin tend to align with one’s deeply-ingrained political views, hampering any chance at reconciliation. Democrats in the legislature generally support the governor’s (comparably) lengthy lockdown, while most Republican legislators never wanted a lockdown in the first place and continue to strenuously object to the long one in progress.
Some have now filed a lawsuit against the governor over the lockdown, charging him with circumventing the legislature. Other lawsuits have been filed against insurance companies that have refused to honor business interruption coverage for businesses losing money in the ongoing Covid plandemic.
* Wisconsin Business Owners protest Lockdown