The rally’s cancellation Friday — though not the reason behind it — came as a relief to local leaders and health care providers, who had feared the presidential gathering would spread the already rampaging virus even further, and had warned the president to stay away.
But in an area of Wisconsin where enthusiasm for Trump runs high, it was unclear whether the president’s diagnosis would change minds or curb risky behavior.
Green Bay attorney Andy Williams, for one, said he would have been among the cheering supporters, proudly barefaced. Even after Trump’s diagnosis, Williams said he would not hesitate to attend a Trump rally should the president reschedule his visit.
The 52-year-old’s daughter contracted coronavirus last week, and that didn’t deter him. Why should this?
“I don’t see a reason not to,” said Williams, who is vice chair of the local Republican Party. “Everybody is free to go or not go. You get to have a free will. There’s not a lot of people here who think it’s an issue.”
Trump’s rally at the Green Bay airport was one of two his campaign had planned in the state for Saturday, and had confirmed on Thursday even after top White House aide Hope Hicks tested positive for coronavirus. The event had promised to be a dramatic collision between the president’s homestretch push for reelection and his management of the pandemic that has taken more than 200,000 American lives.
Wisconsin, with its 10 electoral votes, could be pivotal to his hopes of victory, as it was in 2016, when Trump won the state by less than 1 percent. But Wisconsin is also shattering records for coronavirus case counts each day, with an impact that the governor has described as “devastating.”
To critics, Trump’s willingness to risk a Green Bay rally offered a vivid illustration of the recklessness that lurks behind the state’s spike. That’s especially true in Wisconsin’s northeast, a conservative bastion of White, working-class voters where Trump flags have become a dominant feature of the landscape this fall even as coronavirus rates soar.
Although numbers have jumped in other parts of the state largely due to outbreaks on college campuses, the surge in and around Green Bay has been felt more broadly, with widespread community transmission as people have eased up on precautions — or abandoned them altogether.
“It’s public gatherings: weddings, funerals, people congregated inside a bar to watch a Packers game,” said Ashok Rai, president and chief executive of Prevea Health, which helps to operate two of Green Bay’s four hospitals.
With cases surging, hospitals have struggled to cope. Some have resorted to treating emergency room patients in hallways in recent days, while others have had to delay procedures and bring in nurses from out of state. Rai described his hospitals as being in a “critical” state, with capacity nearly maxed out.
“We have unchecked behavior and unchecked disease. The combination is awful,” said Rai. “Unless we can convince people to take this seriously, whether it’s policymakers or the general public, we’re going to be in a long-term critical situation in this town.”
Rai said he had hoped the rally would be canceled based on “common sense,” and not for the reason it was: the president contracting a virus “you wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
Wisconsin shattered the 3,000-new-cases threshold for the first time on Thursday, while recording nearly 700 hospitalizations and 21 deaths. Nearly 3,000 more cases were added on Friday, with positive test rates above 20 percent statewide. The White House’s coronavirus task force has deemed the Green Bay area “a red zone” because of the scale of the spread.
“We continue to flex our capacity to meet whatever the demands are,” said Chris Woleske, chief executive of Bellin Health, which operates a Green Bay hospital. “But it keeps getting more and more challenging.”
The president’s visit had threatened to make that already dire situation worse, the governor and other officials contended.
“I need him to understand what we’re facing here, what our health care workers face,” Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich (D) said in an interview this week, before Trump’s diagnosis. “Gathering thousands of people together is a recipe for disaster in a community like ours.”
Genrich called on Trump to either cancel his visit or require a mask of anyone who attended.
Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, had made the same plea. The governor instituted a mask mandate in August, though it has been challenged in court by Republican lawmakers. The rule applies only to indoor spaces — meaning the hangars where Trump’s rallies were supposed to be held would likely be exempt.
Trump’s campaign had said there would be temperature checks and that attendees would be offered masks. But usage has been sparse at previous Trump rallies.
That doesn’t bother Williams, the local Republican vice chair, who said he does not believe that masks protect people from the coronavirus — and suggested they might actually do the opposite.
“Wisconsin’s spike happened after the mask mandate was put in place,” said Williams, who had told his assistant not to make any weekend plans for him so he would be free to attend Trump’s rally. “I’m not a scientist, but I have to be honest and say I don’t see the benefit.”
Health officials strongly dispute that interpretation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended mask use since April, with director Robert Redfield saying last month that face coverings may be even more effective than a vaccine.
“We have clear scientific evidence they work, and they are our best defense,” he told Congress.
Yet that message has not been embraced by Trump, who took issue with Redfield’s statement and who has seldom worn a mask in public, while mocking those who do.
That stance has had an impact across northeastern Wisconsin.
“The fact that the president downplays the virus has gives his supporters permission to say ‘Well, it’s overblown. It’s no big deal,’” said Aaron Weinschenk, chair of the political science department at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. “It’s become a thoroughly political issue.”
Weinschenk said he doubted that would change even with Trump’s diagnosis, which came after the president repeatedly modeled behavior his own scientific advisers had warned Americans against.
“It makes him look like a hypocrite. But a lot of things have made him look like a hypocrite,” Weinschenk said. “To his most committed supporters, it doesn’t seem to make a difference.”
Yet some on Friday said they wondered if this time might be different.
Mike Moran, chair of the Democratic Party in Brown County, which includes Green Bay, said he was wishing the president a speedy recovery after hearing the news Friday morning. He was also hoping the disclosure that the president was not immune from coronavirus infection might lead to a change in behavior.
“The ideal outcome would be perhaps a greater appreciation of how serious it is,” Moran said. “That would be the only good thing to come out of this.”
Moran said such awareness has often appeared to be in short supply — at least among some.
“I get the impression we almost have two societies,” he said. “We have a group of folks that are taking covid-19 very seriously. And we have a group of people who don’t seem to believe it exists.”
The disparity is reflected in the style of the two campaigns in the stretch-run of a closely fought state contest that could help determine the national outcome. Democrats in Wisconsin have largely avoided in-person events and activities, with nominee Joe Biden — who leads in state polls — strictly adhering to CDC guidelines whenever he has visited. Republicans, meanwhile, have continued to knock on doors, hold in-person fundraisers and stage the raucous rallies that have been Trump’s signature.
At least for the time being, however, those rallies are out.
Not having Trump on the campaign trail for a critical stretch of October, said State Rep. David Steffen, a Republican, is undoubtedly “a loss” for his party.
“Regardless of what people may think of him, Donald Trump is the greatest show on earth,” said Steffen, who represents parts of Green Bay. “With any battle, it’s helpful to have the general speak directly to the troops.”
In Steffen’s own reelection campaign, he said he has generally avoided holding large, in-person gatherings, favoring virtual and masked, socially distanced events instead.
Trump’s illness, he said, may be a sobering reminder of why those precautions are important.
“If the president of the United States, who is in the most protected environment in the world, is still able to be stricken with this virus,” Steffen said, “it certainly means the rest of us can be, too.”