How Wisconsin Made Statewide Coronavirus Case Numbers Drop

Jun 19, 2020
Originally published on June 19, 2020 4:41 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This week has been marked by an alarming uptick in coronavirus cases in many states, including Texas. Texas saw a record number of new infections, and that has prompted Republican Governor Greg Abbott to give cities and counties the power to impose social distancing measures. It's something that until now, Abbott had refused to do.

Local jurisdictions imposing their own restrictions is something that seems to have helped Wisconsin get its infection numbers down. We wanted to hear more about how this worked in Wisconsin and how it might help the situation in Texas, so we're joined now by reporters in those states, Chuck Quirmbach of WUWM in Milwaukee and Texas Public Radio's Bonnie Petrie. Welcome to both of you.

CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: Thank you.

BONNIE PETRIE, BYLINE: Thank you.

CHANG: All right, Bonnie, let's start with you. We mentioned that Governor Abbott initially resisted letting local governments impose their own restrictions. Tell us more about that.

PETRIE: Yeah, so back on June 3, the governor, Governor Abbott, issued an executive order prohibiting local governments from imposing fines or any sort of penalties for not wearing masks. Now, the attorney general also warned local governments that they could not have any rules that were stricter than state rules. That was the beginning. That was the same day that Governor Abbott ordered Phase 3 of the reopening of businesses in Texas, with all businesses allowed to operate at up to 50% capacity. Now, the governor did encourage face coverings, but he would not allow mandates anywhere in the state, the theory being that issuing penalties for people not wearing masks was kind of counterproductive.

CHANG: But this week, on the same day that Texas admitted a record-breaking 2,500 patients to hospitals for COVID, nine mayors of the biggest cities in Texas, I understand, sent a letter to the governor. Tell us what they wrote to him.

PETRIE: So the mayors of places like San Antonio and Houston and Dallas and Austin, they got together, and they asked if they could have more local authority in setting coronavirus policy in their cities. Now, at the top of the list was the ability to require people to wear masks and impose penalties if they don't. Then the Bexar County judge, which is - a county judge is like a county executive in lots of other places - he thought he found a loophole this week in the whole thing about masks. And he decided he did have the authority to impose mask-wearing requirements...

CHANG: Oh.

PETRIE: ...In businesses in his jurisdiction.

CHANG: OK.

PETRIE: Now, he expected pushback, but Governor Abbott did not push back on this. His response was a bit surprising to some and, well, kind of infuriating to others. Abbott said that was always authorized in his plan, and he essentially gave the Bexar County judge kudos for finally figuring it out.

CHANG: Nice.

PETRIE: So masks will be required in businesses here in San Antonio in this area starting on Monday. And other jurisdictions, people who signed on to that letter, they're all following the county judge's lead in this case.

CHANG: All right. Well, Chuck, let's bring you in now. That sounds like almost the opposite of what happened in Wisconsin. Democratic Governor Tony Evers had statewide restrictions on reopening, but some cities said that those restrictions were too restrictive, and they got them overturned.

QUIRMBACH: Yeah, that's right. Some conservative legislators took the issue of the state's extension of restrictions to the Wisconsin Supreme Court and got the statewide limits thrown out. Some communities, including their bars and restaurants, opened right away. Some of those establishments appeared to have quite a few happy customers.

CHANG: But unlike in Texas, local governments in Wisconsin just went ahead and imposed their own restrictions right away, right?

QUIRMBACH: Well, that's right. Several urban counties did. A few backed off when they were warned the local restrictions were illegal. But Wisconsin's attorney general, a Democrat, issued an opinion saying there could be local restrictions. Most notably, Milwaukee under Mayor Tom Barrett, another Democrat, kept all restrictions on a few more weeks.

CHANG: And it looks like, at least on a statewide basis in Wisconsin, the daily infection rate started dropping a couple weeks after Milwaukee and other urban areas imposed their own restrictions. Do health officials see a connection there?

QUIRMBACH: Well, the medical people have been cautious about claiming victories tied to specific actions. But generally speaking, the local elected officials say being able to keep on some limits probably has helped. Milwaukee, we should note, is not fully open. But generally speaking, new cases in Wisconsin have slowed in the last week or two. This week, a state health official, Ryan Westergaard, a doctor, was asked about the spikes in other states and if he's concerned about a spike in Wisconsin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN WESTERGAARD: The biggest determinants of what the epidemic looks like in the months ahead are the success that we as a community, as a population, engage in these protective behaviors. Physical distancing and wearing masks are probably the two biggest ones.

CHANG: Now, Bonnie, you said the county that includes San Antonio will start requiring masks on Monday. What about other cities in Texas?

PETRIE: So most counties that include major cities are following San Antonio's lead. There's Dallas County, Dallas of course, also Travis County - that's where Austin is - and Harris County is also joining the party. The county judge there announced this afternoon that the businesses in Harris County, which includes Houston, will be mandating masks.

CHANG: OK, so clearly some city leaders there are behind these mask requirements. But what's your sense of how the public feels about it? How do you think people in Texas feel about masks and, more importantly, being forced to wear masks?

PETRIE: Right. Right. I think Texans are kind of all over the map literally and figuratively on this. On the north side of San Antonio - that's where I live - there's a lot of hospitals there, doctors' offices, that kind of thing, and mask wearing it's pretty ubiquitous. But I was recently in Houston, and where I was there, there were masks few and far between. And here in Texas, like probably the rest of the country, it's gotten political. And, you know, it shouldn't be. It's basic public health during a pandemic. But for example, last month, the Bexar County Republican Party chair said that coronavirus was a hoax perpetrated by the Democratic Party to make the president look bad and that everybody should just take off their masks and hug.

CHANG: Wow.

PETRIE: And, you know, some people are moved by talk like that.

CHANG: Well, what does Wisconsin look like, Chuck? I mean, are people wearing masks? Are they staying six feet apart generally? Oh, have we...

QUIRMBACH: I was going say...

CHANG: OK.

QUIRMBACH: ...Many in Milwaukee seem to be, especially at grocery stores and at the Black Lives Matter protests I've covered. But from what I've seen at bars and restaurants, especially in the suburbs, not as much. And at softball games I attended last Monday night in Waukesha County, a Republican county west of Milwaukee, none of the players or fans, about 100 people in all, had on masks. Vice President Mike Pence has scheduled a campaign in another part of that county next week.

One other political angle, Milwaukee still hopes to host the Democratic National Convention in August. The DNC says it plans to come in some form but will follow what local health officials are saying in the weeks leading up to that event, which obviously has already been delayed from July.

CHANG: Now, the growth in daily case numbers in Wisconsin appears to have peaked at the end of May, at least for now. And I'm curious, Bonnie, how does that compare to what Texas is seeing?

PETRIE: Well, people are kind of dancing around the word surge. They won't say it. But there is definitely an upward curve that the man who coordinates emergency rooms and EMS for a huge region of Texas - he told me yesterday that this upward curve, in his words, is stunning. So as of today, Texas is edging close to 100,000 cases. Now, a lot of people around here, and I've heard this in lots of places, are saying the increase in positive COVID virus tests are linked to this increase in testing capacity. But what's unnerving to the emergency management guy I mentioned above is the increase in hospital admissions and the...

CHANG: OK.

PETRIE: ...Increase in need for ventilators.

CHANG: We're going to have to leave it there. That is Texas Public Radio's Bonnie Petrie and Chuck Quirmbach from WUWM in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.