Hundreds of protesters gathered Friday afternoon at the Wisconsin Capitol Building to protest the state's stay-at-home order, defying health officials' guidance and highlighting a growing political rift over how and when states should reopen businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.
Protesters held aloft signs that read, "Tony the Tyrant," referencing Gov. Tony Evers, and "Death is preferable to communism."
Attendees like Mickey Bitsko said the Evers administration's "Safer at Home" order, which has been in place since March 25, has gone too far.
"This is an illegal assembly," Bitsko said. "Evers says we're illegals. He says people everywhere are nonessential. This one, that one. He's picking winners and losers. Who does that sound like? Chairman Mao. Joseph Stalin. Lenin. Trotsky. All the rest of them. They pick the winners and losers. Don't be on the losing side of this one."
A Madison Police Department spokesperson said city officers were monitoring the gathering, which violates Wisconsin's "Safer at Home" order, but official jurisdiction of the gathering falls to Wisconsin State Capitol Police.
Wisconsin’s current stay-at-home order bars "public and private gatherings of any number of people that are not part of a single household."
A Capitol police spokesperson said officers are balancing protecting protesters' civil liberties alongside their health and safety. They were not yet able to provide an official crowd size estimate as of 2:45 p.m. Friday.
Russ Lachman, 69, of La Crosse, said the state's order should be tailored to the needs of different counties because rural communities don't have as many cases of the virus. (A map of COVID-19 cases and deaths broken down by counties can be seen here).
"You've got two major areas in Wisconsin that are bad: Milwaukee, probably Madison, but the rest, especially the western part of the state, northern part of the state, there's nothing," Lachman said. "As far as I'm concerned, Evers should be recalled."
Similar, smaller protests were staged in Brookfield and Mosinee last weekend.
Alex Leykin, 52, of Mequon, said he thought the state's initial response to the pandemic was "excellent," but believes now it's time for things to change.
"We now know what we're facing," Leykin said. "It's time to let the citizens decide for themselves how and who to protect."
Some protesters carried assault rifles through the crowd.
Similar protests have been springing up across the country.
Before the event began, the number of attendees expected was unclear, as the Facebook event organizing the protest was deleted from the social media site, as were other similar events across the country.
According to a photo of the deleted Facebook event page taken earlier this week, roughly 16,000 people indicated they were interested in or planning to attend the protest.
A Facebook spokesperson said the Friday protest was removed from the site because "events that defy government's guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook."
Several restaurants around the Capitol squareannounced Friday morning they would be closed for normal lunchtime service in response to the expected influx of people.
Governor: First Amendment Is 'Sacred'
Gov. Tony Evers said Thursday he supports protesters’ right to gather and express their frustration with the stay-at-home order.
"Using the First Amendment to express yourself, to voice your opinion, is quite sacred," Evers said on a call with reporters.
However, the governor urged protesters to follow social distancing guidelines.
"We’re making the assumption that these are all good Wisconsinites that are establishing their right under the First Amendment to express their views, and we also believe they will make sure they’re physically distanced from each other," he said.
Evers said he doesn’t expect Capitol Police, who denied a permit for the event because it violates the stay-at-home order, to be out using a "yardstick" to gauge whether people are socially distancing.
Counter-Protesters Push Back On Event
Madison health care worker Angela Janis, a psychiatrist, attended the protest to show her opposition. She carried a sign that said, "Please Go Home."
"We are facing unprecedented risk right now and it really takes heroic efforts on everybody’s part, including staying at home," Janis said. "And we’re starting to make a difference, inroads, and if we lift up now, we’re just going to backtrack and have to stay home longer."
Other Wisconsinites expressed their support for the stay-at-home order with virtual counter-protests Friday. One virtual event online had nearly 10,000 RSVPs from people who say they're either interested or planning to participate as of Friday afternoon.
Another scheduled for the weekend had more than 2,000 RSVPs.
In a press release, Marybeth Glenn, one of weekend event's organizers, said "no one is enjoying the limitations put in place," but believes they're necessary to preserving public health.
"We empathize with the financial and emotional struggles so many are experiencing due to the Safer at Home measures, and that includes members of our group," Glenn said. "However, even if the restrictions are lifted, citizens do not feel safe and we are listening to the epidemiologists and healthcare professionals."
SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin also organized the placement of 1,300 candles on the Capitol steps Thursday night in recognition of every person in Wisconsin who has been hospitalized with COVID-19. According to the state health department, 1,318 had been hospitalized as of Thursday afternoon.
On Wednesday, African American Council of Churches president Rev. Dr. Marcus Allen called the protests "sad" and "sickening" on a call with reporters.
"What we have in place already has lessened the amount of people that would die," Allen said. "Why would we interrupt that?"
Mariah Clark, an emergency room nurse at University Hospital in Madison, also spoke on the call. She said the nationwide protests of stay-at-home orders "show no respect for those of us who are trying to keep Americans safe."
"All of us are risking our lives during this crisis," she said.
Kathy Hintz, who works on the cleaning staff at a hospital in Appleton, said in an interview with Wisconsin Watch this week that she was "in shock" after learning about the protests.
"If they had to go through what we go through, they would have a different perspective," she said of the protesters.
According to a Marquette University Law School poll released earlier this month, 86 percent of Wisconsin voters supported the state’s closure of schools and businesses. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll this week found only 12 percent of Americans think states' shutdown measures go too far. Twenty-six percent believe the limits don’t go far enough.
• Police Chief Shaun Thayer reported that Officer Austin Reed resigned to take a position with the Balsam Lake-Centuria Police Department. Office Cody Thompson was promoted to full time a week ago, said Thayer, and a part-time officer will eventually be hired. “It’s hard to go through the interview process right now,” he said.
• Library director Bonnie Carl said that while the library remains closed the adult and summer reading programs have been moved online, and are being paid for by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. She also said that just before the closure the library sent out 500 letters asking for donations, and within two weeks $1,300 had been received.
• The board approved its annual $1,500 donation to the Milltown Cemetery. Final payment of $55,262 to Derrick Building Solutions for the library project was approved with the condition that the outdoor lighting be changed and an inside door replaced first.
• White asked whether the board would consider a variance for a property in Bering Park that would allow two mobile homes that are currently owned by the same people to have less than the required 20 feet between them in order to be sold. She and Trustees Les Sloper and Glenn Owen were going to visit the property April 14, with a phone meeting to possibly follow in order to approve the variance.
Service Centers to offer only essential services by appointment; online services remain open
To protect customers and employees from the spread of COVID-19, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is further restricting in-person service all Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) Customer Service Centers on Wednesday, April 8, 2020. This action furthers the limitation of face-to-face services that began on March 23, 2020. Until further notice, the service centers will be closed to all in-person transactions except the following services, which will be available by appointment only:
- Commercial Driver Licenses
- Voters needing identification who need to use the Identification card Petition Process
- New Wisconsin residents who need a driver license or ID for voting
To make an appointment for one of these essential services while the Safer at Home order is in place, call the DMV Communication Center at (608) 264-7447.
Online services available at wisconsindmv.gov
- All vehicle-related transactions (including renewing registration, titling a vehicle, etc.)
- Obtaining a duplicate driver license
- Changing address
Services can also be completed by mail or through third-party providers.
Other modifications DMV has in place to reduce in-person visits include:
- All driver licenses and CDLs renewals are extended 60 days
- All ID cards can be renewed online
- Emissions testing requirements have been deferred
- Registration renewals should still be completed by mail or online by the renewal date
- Non-CDL driver skills tests have been cancelled until further notice
- A robust online presence (wisconsindmv.gov) to assist with your other DMV needs
DMV staff will continue to handle phone calls, process mailed-in applications, and assist with any other prioritized work on behalf of the state.
When it became clear that Wisconsin's April 7 election wasn't going to be postponed, Dean Kaufert turned to MacGyver, the star of a popular 1980s TV show, for inspiration.
"MacGyver always improvised things to make things work," he said.
Kaufert, who is mayor of Neenah, Wis., was part of a coalition of mayors who pushed hard for the election to be postponed as coronavirus infections spread in the state.
The mayors said it was going to be impossible for their local clerks to safely and effectively administer the election amid the pandemic.
But their pleas went nowhere. Federal lawsuits looking to delay the election failed and the Republican-controlled state legislature refused to make any changes to the election date or existing election laws.
"Everyone was telling me, 'Dean, it's not going to happen. The election is going to move forward,' " Kaufert said. "I said, 'If that's the case, then we're going to do whatever we can to help protect the safety and health of our workers and my citizens.' "
Hence MacGyver. Kaufert asked a city maintenance worker to build Plexiglas barriers to put between poll workers and voters. Kaufert was inspired by screens he saw in his city's finance department, which had just been renovated.
"I sketched something out on paper and gave it to my maintenance guy and within six hours he had a prototype for me," he said.
By the next week, 26 clear shields were situated in front of poll workers helping people cast early ballots in the city of 25,000.
Voters check in using touchscreen electronic poll books. To reduce the risk of touching a potentially contaminated surface, Kaufert did some Googling and figured out how to make reusable writing utensils out of Q-tips and aluminum foil.
Then Kaufert tracked down the owners of an empty department store.
"And we're now holding the election in this 90,000-square-foot building with ample space, so everyone can follow the [social distancing] guidelines recommended by the CDC," he said.
Kaufert is particularly happy that the store has automatic doors, so no one will have to touch handles on the way in or out, and that the building has been vacant for several months, so there's no risk of it being contaminated with the virus by previous tenants.
Despite all of these efforts and relative success, Kaufert said he's still "mad as hell" that the election is happening as scheduled.
Many people in Wisconsin agree.
A shortage of 7,000 poll workers statewide
Thousands of poll workers in Wisconsin have been put in the unenviable position of deciding whether to do their job on Election Day or stay safe at home.
Daina Zemliauskas was scheduled to be a chief inspector at her polling place in Madison and said she was brought to tears by the decision.
"I feel guilty. I wanted to hold out," Zemliauskas said. "But, of course, the risk was just too great."
She spent three excruciating hours writing a resignation email to her city clerk. Zemliauskas said the response she got back was "terse," but she understands clerks are under incredible stress right now.
"I thought, why should I put myself, my family and my community at risk?" she said. "You know, this is just outrageous. It's madness."
Like the majority of Wisconsin poll workers, Zemliauskas is older than 60, putting her at higher risk of severe symptoms if she contracts COVID-19.
Last week, Wisconsin's elections agency used a state airplane to fly emergency supplies like isopropyl alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer and more than a million disposable pens to clerks across the state, in an attempt to shore up health and sanitation measures at polling places.
But Zemliauskas' fears — and those of many others — weren't assuaged by that effort.
According to the state elections agency, clerks are now dealing with a shortage of about 7,000 poll workers across the state.
As of last week, Neil Albrecht, the head of elections in Milwaukee, said he was operating with only 400 of his usual 1,400 election workers.
He said he doesn't blame his would-be staff for backing out.
"I come from a place of election worker and public safety first and foremost, and then of course access to voting, but at the end of the day we shouldn't be putting our election workers or the public at risk," he said.
Wisconsin's largest city normally has 180 polling places on Election Day, but Albrecht said on Tuesday it will be down to five for the entire city.
Advocacy groups warn of voter disenfranchisement
For weeks, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has been urging people to vote by mail.
But by law, requesting a mail-in ballot in Wisconsin involves using a smartphone to upload a copy of a valid ID for voting, or having the technology to make a physical copy of the ID to send in the mail.
Many say these options are impossible for some voters, particularly senior citizens and low-income people.
"We've been taking literally hundreds, if not thousands, of phone calls per day from voters concerned about how they are going to vote," Albrecht said.
Mary Ellen Spiegelberg of West Allis called her local clerk several times attempting to request a mail-in ballot, but was having trouble with the technical requirements.
"I'm still using a Tracfone flip phone," Spiegelberg said. "I'm in the process of looking for a smartphone of one type or another, but I don't have that yet."
She said she's voted in "nearly every election for more than 70 years" and is determined to find a way to cast a ballot, even if it means risking public exposure on Election Day. She's looking into sewing face masks for herself and her husband.
"I still want to vote, and so does my husband," Spiegelberg said. "We are accustomed to voting in every election and this is an important one."
In Milwaukee, the Rev. Greg Lewis is also concerned that many of his neighbors won't be able to vote.
"It's already difficult trying to get people in my neighborhood to come out and vote because we don't think our vote really counts," said Lewis, who's president of Souls to the Polls, a group that works to mobilize black voters in Milwaukee.
Milwaukee's black community has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. There have been several deaths. And Lewis himself has been diagnosed with the virus.
When the choice is between navigating the absentee ballot process or risking going to the polls in person, voting is going to be "practically impossible" for many in his community, he said.
"And that is so, so incredibly heartbreaking," Lewis said.
Legislative leaders refuse election changes
Wisconsin's election date is written into state law and only the Republican-controlled state legislature can postpone it.
For weeks, state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and other Wisconsin GOP leaders have opposed making any changes to the election. They argue that it's too late to make it all-mail-in voting, because there isn't enough time to educate voters about the change.
They also point out that Wisconsin's spring election is not just a presidential primary; it's also a general election for hundreds of local offices, like mayor, county executive and county board. The winners of many of those races are scheduled to take office in April.
Vos says risking vacancies in local government positions isn't possible, especially during a pandemic.
"We live in a republic, and we live in one that has to have elections," he told reporters two weeks ago.
Vos and state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald rebuffed the governor's call on Friday for a special session of the legislature over the weekend to act on proposals to shift the election to entirely by mail, and to delay deadlines for clerks' receipt and counting of ballots until May.
The governor had been pushing for an all-mail election for a while, but Friday was the first time he said it should be delayed until May.
The legislative leaders accused Evers of caving "under political pressures from national liberal special interest groups."
Vos says he plans to work at a polling place in his district on Election Day.
"I'm looking forward to the pride that I'm going to feel knowing that there were hopefully a million Wisconsinites who did the right thing and cast their ballot, whether by mail or in person, because democracy has to continue," he said.
A federal judge ruled last week that Wisconsin voters will have until April 13 to get their mail-in ballots to their local clerk, which means results won't be known until next week. But that's the least of most people's worries right now.