the COVID failed states of america

11.720 Westlight 26 (Earth Epic Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head: Midnight Oil, “Dreamworld

Coronavirus Mask Quarantine Virus  - Engin_Akyurt / Pixabay
Engin_Akyurt / Pixabay

This is the second in a series of posts about the epic failure in the U.S. to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. It focuses more about the epic fail at the state and local level. The first one–focusing mostly on the failure at the federal level–is here. Not only is the U.S. government a failed state, but we arguably have 50 COVID failed states of America.

This post will focus more about about failure at the state level. But first, I have an update of the national statistics about COVID cases and deaths.

DateAverage Number of new cases/ dayAverage Number of deaths per dayTotal casesTotal deaths
3/16/20201694,63285
4/16/202029,4812,349667,80132,916
5/16/202022,6101,4231,467,82088,754
6/16/202022,6067112,137,731116,963
7/16/202065,4597243,567,157138,358
8/16/202051,8911,0095,413,203170,052
9/16/202034,7827356,361,267190,859
10/16/202055,0826898,076,103218,869

We are in the middle of a new surge of cases, similar to what had been predicted for the fall.

But we would be looking at much fewer cases and deaths from COVID-19 if state and local governments hadn’t permitted the business community to short-circuit stay-at-home orders and other pandemic precautions. Lets take a closer look at the COVID failed states.

Chamber of Commerce vs. Science

Wisconsin, and even Dane County and the city of Madison are an excellent examples of COVID failed states.

Note that in early March, schools began to close down in many states. By mid-May, many states were opening up again, and people were holding protests against lockdown measures. This continued into June and in July, things began to spike in an extreme way.

Why did reopening proceed before public health officials were ready to? Because businesses were losing money.

Why were they losing money? Because the bulk of federal money went to large corporations.

How this played out in Wisconsin is a good example. Gov. Tony Evers and the State of Wisconsin Department of Health were good about shutting schools and businesses in March. But the state Republicans with help from the Wisconsin Supreme Court blocked the state’s right to implement such emergency orders and insisted that any emergency order regarding the pandemic needed to be approved by the State Legislature.

When Evers sat down to meet with the leaders of the State Senate and Assembly—Scott Fitzgerald and Robin Vos, these Republican leaders refused to compromise in any way, shape, or form. They insisted that the state was going to open and stay open. A snippet from a recorded conversation showed Gov. Evers asking what they should do if the number of cases in the fall skyrockets, expressing frustration with their hands-off approach. “Do we just say the hell with it?” Fitzgerald said, “Someone should call [University of Wisconsin athletic director] Barry Alvarez and say is there going to be football in Camp Randall in August.”

Understandably, Evers calculated that it was far better to let public health decisions be made on a county by county level. He probably calculated that the most heavily populated counties in Wisconsin—particularly Milwaukee and Dane Counties—would have the strictest restrictions and the rural counties would have less strict, and their decisions would be subject to scrutiny from voters at the local level. This would be a better result than the Republican controlled Legislature passing a statewide measure that would actually limit the rights of the local health department to act to defend its citizens, which is consistent with what they’ve done while controlling the legislature since 2010.

COVID failed states in Madison and Dane County

But these counties and their health departments were subject to their own heavy-pressure lobbying. I’ll use the example of Dane County—arguably the most progressive county in Wisconsin. County Executive Joe Parisi and Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said that they would adhere to the state plan for opening businesses.

Except that they didn’t.

This was first uncovered when a group of Madison alders and Dane County Board members sent a letter to the Health Department questioning why the county and the city were proceeding into Phase 1 of the reopening plan when only two out of six of the criteria for doing so were met. Their concerns were dismissed, and they were even criticized for bringing their concerns forward too late and mucking up the process.

And just in case there were any concerns about moving to Phase 2, the Health Department gave exactly one business day’s notice about the implementation of Phase 2. It was a strange email that they sent out because in the email, they shared that the number of COVID-19 cases was rising and heading towards the “red zone.”

You can guess what happened next. Dane County and Wisconsin began to set record high numbers of new cases of COVID, with enormous spikes. July made May and April look mild by comparison. Meanwhile, in Dane County, press reports revealed that the Madison Chamber of Commerce was aware of the reopening before Madison’s alders were. This began to arouse suspicion that maybe the Chamber of Commerce pushed hard to deviate from Gov. Evers’ original plan.

More shenanigans at the state level

Gov. Evers still had a card up his sleeve. It seemed like a gutsy move, but it paid dividends. On July 7, he decreed a statewide mask mandate, requiring the public to wear masks when indoors outside their own homes. Immediately, multiple county sheriffs declared that they would not enforce the mandate. Scott Fitzgerald and Robin Vos threatened to override the mandate, which they could do with a majority in the legislature.

But strangely, the Republican leaders didn’t follow through on their threat. Or maybe it wasn’t so strange. Polls showed that the mask mandate had the support of 70% of Wisconsinites. Advantage, Evers and science.

Touchdown, Wisconsin!

However, the shenanigans were far from over in Wisconsin. Enter the University of Wisconsin. UW-Madison said that they would have a mix of online and in-person classes. That lasted exactly six days. A surge of over 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 between August 31 and September 6 suddenly forced the UW to cancel all in-person classes, move all classes on line, and quarantine two large dormitories and 22 fraternities and sororities.

Apparently, for all their well-developed reopening plans, it hadn’t occurred to them that some students might prefer to party unmasked rather than observe social distancing. I don’t know why this didn’t occur to them. Supposedly mature adults flocked to the bars, unmasked, without social distance, the evening following the moment the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided that the state Department of Health did not have the right to impose restrictions on businesses reopening, even though the state had a coherent reopening plan. I don’t know what made the University think that college students would show more maturity. In fact, my observation is that the vast majority of UW students have taken the restrictions seriously. But it took a minority of rotten apples to cause the whole University’s plan to fall apart.

As of this week, more than 3,000 of the University of Wisconsin’s 44,000 students have contracted COVID-19, a stunning 7% rate among the student body.

This surge of COVID cases has now gone statewide and for several weeks now, Wisconsin has been setting records for new cases of COVID-19

Yet this hasn’t stopped state conservatives from trying to undermine emergency orders. State GOP leaders testified in court on behalf of a lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) to undo Gov. Evers’ mask mandate.

And so it goes, and so it goes

It started with the federal government handing out practically unlimited cash grants to large corporations while leaving little help available for small businesses, states, and individuals. While the Dow Jones is at record levels, small businesses, states and individuals are scrambling for money. It’s not the states’ faults necessarily for being COVID failed states.

Because the lack of support puts pressures on small businesses, these businesses have struggled, many have closed, and it increases the pressure to reopen businesses despite the health risks. This ends up pitting the local business communities against local health departments. Many local governments, including remarkably progressive City of Madison and Dane County, succumb to the pressure while pretending they are still following best practices. And the virus continues.

A pattern seems to occuring. A lesson that Americans, more than most people around the world, are deeply resistant to learning. For decades, most Americans have considered themselves to be so above crisis, and it seemed like all we had to do was “will the virus away.” But we haven’t learned our lesson, so our lessons continue to repeat themselves.

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