Today is the last day of April. When we started turning our attention toward 2020 four months ago, we were thinking of a lot of things. Up here in northwest Wisconsin, they were likely these things, in no particular order: How long will winter last this time? Will the Packers make it to the Super Bowl? Can the Bucks actually win the NBA title this season? And how many days is it till baseball spring training begins?
Yes, we knew that 2020 would be an election year, but frankly, outside of places like Madison and a few smaller college towns, where the state’s political junkies congregate, nobody was really looking forward to that.
Closer to home, I was looking forward to the new year for a lot of reasons beyond the start of spring training. For one thing, I was in California on the final day of 2019, getting ready to attend the Rose Bowl in Pasadena the next day with my brother, Brian. We had driven over to the Palm Springs area from Phoenix, and we were eagerly anticipating the game. We had our Wisconsin Badgers gear all ready to go. I spent New Year’s Eve in a hotel room in Indio, eating takeout from Subway and watching a movie. Sue was back home in much colder and snowier Wisconsin. If you had told either of us right then that in less than three months, we and the entire nation would be caught in the grip of a pandemic, we would’ve probably said, “That only happens in cheap novels.” Or, at the very least, long ago in the past, when medical science couldn’t cope with such things.
Well, as it turned out, 21st century medical science has proven that it has trouble coping with a pandemic, too.
Coming in May: the Great Re-opening.
So, where do we stand as May gets set to arrive in less than 15 hours?
I’ve been taking a weekly look at the IHME model, which has been the most-quoted source of COVID-19 modeling, although by no means the only one. For the U.S. as a whole and for Wisconsin, here’s how the most important stats looked at the start of April and then close to the end, with dates now in the past italicized:
U.S. 4/1 4/29
Hospital resource peak day 4/15 4/19
Daily deaths peak day 4/15 4/15
Deaths on peak day 2,644 2,693
Date of last death 7/14 6/29
Total deaths by 8/4 93,531 72,433
Wisconsin 4/1 4/29
Hospital resource peak day 4/27 4/11
Daily deaths peak day 4/27 4/5
Deaths on peak day 25 20
Date of last death 6/10 5/12
Total deaths by 8/4 951 336
As I’ve stated before, I wasn’t a math major in college and my expertise in statistics is confined almost entirely to certain sports, but it sure seems to me as if the modeling, as of April 1, was a lot more pessimistic than how things turned out to be. The Wisconsin model, in particular, turned out to be extremely off-base, and we’re certainly thankful about that. In fact, it now shows that we’re pretty much out of the woods up here. Undoubtedly it will take longer for the state’s “hot spots” in Madison, Milwaukee and, to a lesser extent Green Bay, to settle down, but even there, improvement has been noted.
The numbers would seem to show that we’re getting a handle on things pretty much everywhere. Even the nation’s hottest of hot spots, New York City and its environs, is on the downward slope. In Europe, the worst-hit nations, Italy and Spain, are now re-opening many sectors of their economies.
There’s been all sorts of information disseminated, and lots of misinformation, too. And these being the times we’re in, anything stated by any political leader is going to be examined in minute detail and then denounced by his or her opponents and their allies in the media, no matter what is said. And if someone from one side of the spectrum makes a statement that turns out to be proven patently untrue by subsequent facts, well, it’s just simply ignored by whoever uttered it in the first place, as if it never happened. In other words, it’s politics as usual, even during a time when we’re all supposed to be pulling together.
While disappointing, it’s nothing new. History tells us that it’s happened before, so we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s happening now. During World War II, arguably the greatest crisis faced by our country since the Civil War, there was plenty of dissent here at home, much of it politically-oriented. Historians generally laud the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt, our president when we entered the war, but in the 1944 election, 46% of the country voted for FDR’s opponent, Thomas Dewey. So it was that even with a great victory on the horizon, nearly half the populace disapproved of the way Roosevelt was handling the war and running the country.
Across America, there has been an emergence of mainly two schools of thought about how this whole thing has been handled up to now, and should be handled going forward. One school is that the scientists and medical experts are the only ones whose words should be heeded. They know everything that is known, so far, about this virus and how to contain it. So, if they tell us to do something, we should do it, no questions asked. And the politicians who implement policies based on what the scientists tell them should be obeyed, also with no questions asked–unless, of course, the political leader in question is from the party you happen to disagree with on other issues. Then, questioning is not only allowed, it’s almost encouraged.
The other school of thought is that while it’s certainly important to listen to the scientists, it’s important to listen to other people, too, like economists, who have been telling us that our nation’s economy, indeed the world’s, cannot long sustain itself in a healthy manner if commerce has ground to a halt. So, a measured approach to dealing with the virus should be the way to go. Get a handle on it, certainly, but when it appears that point has been reached, it’s time to start letting people get back to work, before the economy goes too far into the tank.
The scientific experts haven’t helped themselves by being proven consistently wrong about the virus, its origins and its spread. Many of those who are now considered the most trustworthy stated earlier in February that the virus wouldn’t pose much of a problem. Here in Wisconsin, there was a huge uproar early in April as we approached the scheduled election on the seventh. The governor, supported by the health experts, wanted to move the election to May or later, but he was overruled by the state Supreme Court and it was held as scheduled. Although in-person turnout was down and absentee balloting was way up, a lot of the scientists issued dire warnings about how having people show up in person at polling places would cause huge spikes in the infection and death rate. Now, they’re having to eat their words, sort of.
Even as the election’s fate was being heatedly debated across the state in the first week of April, movement was being seen in the state and around the country to re-open businesses. Now that it appears the election didn’t have much of an impact, virus-wise, the re-open train is gathering steam. Despite what the Journal-Sentinel article linked to above says, though, that hasn’t stopped some national media outlets from interpreting the numbers through their own political prism, like this piece in Politico. In case you were unfamiliar with this outfit, Politico is one of the darlings of liberals. Today’s online headine screams: JUSTIN AMASH WANTS TO DESTROY THE SYSTEM THAT CREATED TRUMP. Fortunately, I get the sense that nobody outside certain coastal cities really cares what Politico has to say about anything, and probably most people in fly-over country aren’t even aware of its existence.
But back to the business at hand. Wisconsin is going to re-open, and soon, despite what Governor Tony Evers wanted when he announced recently that his “safer at home” restrictions would stay in place until after Memorial Day.
The revolt of the small towns.
Depending on how all this turns out, future Wisconsin historians might point to our nearby town of Rice Lake as one of the catalysts for the rebellion against Evers. This week, the city council voted to allow businesses to re-open, gradually, well in advance of May 26. The council’s vote was a 4-4 tie, but the mayor cast the deciding vote. It didn’t take long for businesses to announce their doors were either open now or would be soon. Our gym quickly posted on its Facebook page that it would welcome us starting May 6. Bars and restaurants, who have been particularly hard-hit by the restrictions, will be able to start serving meals and drinks to actual in-house customers again on May 11.
Rice Lake isn’t the only small, upstate Wisconsin town to want to ramp things up again. Those communities especially dependent on tourism are anxious, too, although they’re somewhat ambivalent, because their visitors tend to come from those big urban areas where the virus has been a lot more active. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the way Evers has addressed this crisis, not even bothering to consider a “regional” approach to re-opening in his Badger Bounce Back plan, has only deepened our state’s rural/urban divide.
But, regardless of where or how it might’ve begun, the re-opening movement is underway and I doubt if it will be stopped. In addition to economic concerns, which are certainly valid no matter your point of view, there’s a suspicion at work here, a growing belief that these experts who are driving policy, telling the politicians what to do, are not only imperfect, but somehow getting carried away: Promoting hysteria.
There are other views from citizens who are concerned that this whole episode has been used as some sort of test run for a near-future federal government that decides to crack down on civil liberties in the name of “the greater good.” Indeed, we have had some politicians who have stated that now is the time to “restructure things to fit our vision.” Does that “vision” include things like shuttering churches, restricting free assembly, even arresting people for doing a specific job the government doesn’t think should be done right now? That sounds ridiculous, and yet, it’s been happening.
But the people are fighting back, and if there’s good news in that, besides the likelihood that the revolt against the restrictions may very well keep our economy from cratering, is that it’s being done peacefully. Many coastal elites were alarmed when they saw photos and video of pro-opening demonstrators in Wisconsin and elsewhere toting firearms, yet there were no reports of any shootings, accidental or otherwise. (Not surprising; years ago, when our state passed laws allowing legal handgun owners to carry their weapons in public, there were breathless predictions of Wild West-style gunfights in the streets. None of that happened.)
So, what happens now?
Nobody knows that answer, either. A month and a half ago, there were predictions of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of American deaths as a result of the virus. That level of fatalities almost certainly won’t happen. Doubtless the restrictions helped slow the spread of the virus and kept our healthcare system from collapsing under its weight, but at some point, everybody knew that things would have to re-open. The only question was when. Right now, the NBA and NHL are discussing plans for holding their delayed playoffs in the summer, so our Bucks might get a shot at their first title in 49 years in spite of the virus. Major League Baseball is considering some innovative ways to play a shortened season; the latest one I heard was starting in July, probably in empty stadiums at first, with reshuffled divisions that would cut down on travel, expanded playoffs and a World Series in November, perhaps played at a neutral site to alleviate weather concerns. Even the mighty NFL is now talking about delaying its planned September regular-season kickoff, but still getting in a full season that could last well into February 2021.
As always, we move forward. Although few have thrived during this time, and tragically many have died, a lot of us who have survived will have gained a new and better perspective on things, like our health, and how fragile it can be, no matter our level of fitness. We’ve already learned, for example, that being in good health means the virus is likely to have little if any impact on you. If that isn’t an incentive to exercise and eat right, I don’t know what more one would want. Being at home with our kids and grandkids has not led to the mass homicides and abuse that a lot of the doomsayers were predicting. Society has not broken down. It is remaking itself in some ways, perhaps some that were necessary, and hopefully those ways will last into our new normal.
There’s an old saying that sometimes is applied to the benefits of physical fitness training: “Better, stronger, faster.” It will take us awhile to fully recover from this episode in our history, but we’re on our way, when we get there, watch out.