WAUSAU, Wis. — Betty Thompson could have voted absentee in the special congressional election held here on Tuesday. Her husband did. Her daughter did. So did many of her friends.
“Honestly, I just wanted to get out,” Thompson admitted. “I wanted to feel normal, and this is what I do: I get out and vote.”
Inside the small church, it did not feel normal. After the state’s controversial April 7 primary, in which state health officials have said they believe more than 60 people potentially caught or were at least contagious with the coronavirus, election administrators took no chances. Panes of plastic separated voters from poll workers and from each other. Voting booths were at least six feet apart. Canisters of hand sanitizer were everywhere, including two large industrial dispensers on the sidewalk.
More than half the ballots in Tuesday’s election were cast absentee. But there was still a steady stream of voters at polling stations. Some wore masks. Others, like Thompson, did not. “It’s hard for me to breathe in a mask,” she said. But she felt safe, even without one.
While cases of covid-19 have ticked up in Wisconsin — as of Tuesday more than 10,600 people had tested positive for the disease — cases have been far less widespread in this part of the state. In Marathon County, where Wausau is located, just 28 people had tested positive while one person had died.
Health officials have not released specific information about those who have been sickened, citing privacy concerns, but it’s believed that most of the cases have been in Wausau, a scenic city of about 39,000 people nestled here along the Wisconsin River about two hours north of Madison, the state capital. It is one of the more populous cities in this part of rural central Wisconsin, where the rolling landscape into town is dotted by dairy farms and manufacturing plants.
“This isn’t New York or California. This isn’t even Milwaukee,” Thompson said, referring to Wisconsin’s largest city where there have been nearly 3,200 diagnosed cases of the coronavirus. “Our experience has been very different here.”
Many voters, including Thompson, said they remain concerned about the spread of the coronavirus. But some admitted other things were beginning to scare them more. A survey by a group working to revitalize Wausau’s downtown area found more than half of businesses shuttered by the state’s safer-at-home order were at risk of permanently closing, including several retail stores and restaurants.
Some restaurants had tried to stay open under the Wisconsin’s safer-at-home order, which went in effect on March 25, serving delivery and takeout, but many ultimately closed, citing a drop-off in business that didn’t cover operating expenses.
On Monday, Gov. Tony Evers (D) modified the order to allow some small retail businesses around the state to reopen under rules limiting stores to five customers at a time under strict social distancing and sanitary requirements.
State officials said the modification would allow at least 90,000 people across Wisconsin to head back to work. But in downtown Wausau, most businesses remained closed on Tuesday, and many restaurants, restricted to takeout only until the safer-at-home order expires May 26, were still dark.
Across the state, more than half a million people have filed for unemployment benefits since the coronavirus outbreak began here in March — about 16 percent of the state’s workforce. But some wonder if the jobless rate is even higher, given difficulties some workers who have lost their jobs reported in trying to file for benefits. Phone lines to the state’s Department of Workplace Development have been jammed, and others have reported technical issues in trying to file for benefits online.
That’s a dramatic shift from February, when Wisconsin’s unemployment rate was just 3.5 percent. Evers and other Wisconsin officials have said they are hopeful many workers will regain employment when business restrictions are lifted and the state reopens more fully. But amid growing uncertainty about what exactly life and business looks like in coming months with no vaccine for covid-19 and threats of future outbreaks, some worry the economy won’t bounce back and those jobs could simply be gone.
Adding to the pressure are the state’s fiscal concerns. A growing number of cities across the state have announced plans to furlough employees, citing a dramatic decrease in sales tax and other revenues that help fund basic services. Last week, the state announced its unemployment fund could be drained by October.
Exact numbers on how this is playing out in more rural parts of Wisconsin, like the area around Wausau, are hard to come by, but the personal toll is one that’s not hard to miss. “I don’t know anybody who has gotten sick or anyone who has had any of the symptoms, thank God,” a voter named John, who declined to give his last name, said after he had cast his ballot at Wausau East High School. “But I know many people who have lost their jobs.”
So far he had been lucky. As a construction worker who pours concrete, business had continued as usual. But he wondered about coming months, whether customers would still be able to afford their new driveways or whether other projects across the region would go on as planned. As he spoke, he wore a face mask and kept his distance from a reporter. He knew people who thought the coronavirus was a hoax.
“I am not like that. I think it’s real and can kill you,” he said. “But this is going to destroy a lot of people without making them sick.”
The economic uncertainty has put growing pressure on the governor to lift restrictions on areas like Marathon County, which haven’t been as hard hit as other parts of the state — a call Evers has resisted, arguing social distancing and other restrictions have protected these areas from major outbreaks like the ones seen in Milwaukee and Green Bay, a recent hotspot.
Last week, the state Supreme Court, on which conservative justices hold a majority, heard arguments in a lawsuit filed by the Republican leaders of the state legislature seeking to overturn Evers’ safer-at-home order. While Republicans have not issued a specific plan for reopening the state amid covid-19, House Speaker Robin Vos had endorsed a regional opening plan.
A court ruling had been expected last week, but as deliberations have continued, Vos has publicly shifted his position, writing in a Twitter message Monday that “it’s time to get everyone back to work in every part of the state.”
What that looks like and how people feel about it increasingly varies across the state and along partisan lines. A Marquette University poll released Tuesday found a majority of registered voters surveyed — 69 percent — say it was appropriate to close schools and businesses and restrict public gatherings to prevent the spread of covid-19, while 26 percent said it was an overreaction. In March, 86 percent said it was appropriate, compared to 10 percent who said it was an overreaction.
Part of that shift appears to be because of a growing political divide over the state’s response. In March, 83 percent of Republicans polled said the restrictions were appropriate, compared to 49 percent in the latest poll. Among independents, support slipped from 79 percent in March to 69 percent, while support among Democrats went from 95 percent to 90 percent in the latest poll.
The poll found decreased concern about the disease compared to earlier this spring. Still, 56 percent said they were more concerned Wisconsin would reopen too soon, compared to 40 percent who said they were more concerned the state would not reopen soon enough.
That divide was playing out in Wausau on Tuesday as many voters openly fretted about the desire to see businesses reopen vs. the health risks that might entail. “If they don’t maintain some of the cautions, reopening too much too soon is a risk,” said John Werjin, 67, who retired as a site safety manager for a renewable energy company.
From what he’d observed on his rare grocery trips and drives around town, most people seemed to be wearing masks and observing distancing rules. But he worried about people “letting their guard down.”
Others, like Thompson, argued things could reopen safely. “Nothing is going to be normal. The virus is going to be there,” she said. “But we have to find a way to reopen. We can be smart and responsible. … I’m not discounting anything about [covid-19], but we need to be real. People are hurting. We need to get people back to work.”
Across the parking lot, a woman who had stepped out of her car shrieked in joy when she saw another woman exiting the polling site at Pilgrim church. The friends hadn’t seen each other in person in nearly two months, and they embraced in a tight hug before almost instantly jumping apart, as if shocked by electricity.
“I forgot,” one said, her words muffled by her face mask. “We can’t do that.”