Where is the Plan to Reopen Wisconsin’s Economy?

April 14, 2020

Guest perspective by Sen. Duey Stroebel

Easter Sunday marked one month since Governor Evers declared a public health emergency.  According to the prevailing IHME national model, we are right about at the peak of COVID-19 growth in Wisconsin. This national model has revised its predictions down several times to its current total of 338 Wisconsin deaths by May 7th. The trajectory of cases and deaths in Wisconsin is many times lower than the initial projections upon which Governor Evers and Secretary-Designee Palm based their policies.  In fact, on March 24, Secretary-Designee Palm warned that the state’s current path would lead to 22,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and up to 1,500 of those cases leading to deaths from our state population of 5.8 million.  As of Friday the 10th, we just eclipsed 3,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 128 Wisconsinites have sadly lost their lives as a result of the virus.

The state has not suffered the type of outbreak Secretary-Designee Palm warned we would.  Everyone should be celebrating this outcome. With COVID-19 patients only taking up about 13.3% of all ICU beds in Wisconsin, with about 29% of ICU space still available on April 10th, the concern of overwhelming our medical system is not as imminent or inevitable as it seemed previously.  In fact, a total of 443 COVID-19 patients are currently in Wisconsin hospitals – that is one person for every 13,000 Wisconsin residents.  That means we must start planning for the next phase – a reopening of the state.  As was recently asked of the President, I ask of the Governor, what is the plan?”  We recognize that returning to “normal” will not happen overnight, but the Governor must provide some leadership and explain the steps necessary to reignite our shared economy.

As we enter this new phase of the COVID-19 situation, I believe we need to both take a fresh look at old problems and start brainstorming solutions for new problems that have arisen.  Unfortunately, the Governor is still focused on even further closing down society.  Last Thursday he closed 40 state parks and threatened more.  It is not hard to practice social distancing when walking through hundreds of acres of state land.  If there truly were management issues, then deal with the problem, do not punish state residents. In addition, only because of the efforts of the Wisconsin Institute of Law & Liberty and my colleague Senator Dave Craig were Wisconsinites able to sit in church parking lots for Easter services.  Instead of looking to close off more segments of society and the economy, the Governor should be working with legislators to begin loosening the state stranglehold.

Every sickness and death is a tragedy, but so are businesses and livelihoods ruined by shelter in place orders.  The same rings true for the pronounced negative impacts on civil liberties and quality of life.  The entire basis for the orders was to prevent our health care system from being overrun.  While there are benefits to health safety measures, new data demands we run the analysis continuously.  With hot spots in Milwaukee and Madison and few if any outbreaks in other parts of the state a “one size fits all” approach does not work. Furthermore, the data indicates that certain demographic groups are statistically at a much higher risk, precautions and policies should be driven by this data.  By targeting our policies both geographically and demographically, we can not only mitigate the dangers of COVID-19 but also reopen our economy.

Nationwide there are dramatic economic impacts from our COVID-19 prevention strategies.  The coffers of Wisconsin will not be immune from the brakes being slammed on our economy.  Besides being counterproductive, indefinite sheltering orders may eventually lead to widespread ignoring of otherwise necessary potions of the order.  We need to begin planning an orderly method of reopening our civil life in stages to refresh our economy and liberties soon.  Even under optimum restart conditions, tough decisions will need to be made about our state finances.  States cannot print money like the federal government can.

It is irresponsible to conceal the truth from Wisconsinites – we will likely be unable to live up to all the terms of the current state budget.  I am not going to tell constituents, who are losing their businesses, getting laid off and seeing their nest eggs dip with the stock market to pay higher taxes so that state and local employees can avoid unpaid furloughs, or so that government programs can grow at twice the rate of inflation.  We do not yet know what our fiscal challenges will look like in a few months, but these are challenges that will only get worse if we fail to reopen our society in a timely fashion.

On May 10th the Governor’s Executive Order, which serves as the foundation for the DHS emergency orders, expires.  It can only be extended by joint resolution of the Legislature.  Instead of further constraining the economy and the freedom of our state’s residents, I implore the Governor to work with legislative leaders to identify the areas of the economy and society that can begin reopening while taking the necessary steps to continue protecting our most vulnerable and ensuring our health care system is not overwhelmed.  That will likely require some tough decisions regarding events and gatherings we all enjoy.  But an indefinite shelter order will not be extended.  I trust my fellow Wisconsinites to take reasonable precautions to protect themselves, their families, and their neighbors.  The Governor must have a plan to reignite this state no later than May 10th.  If he does not, the Legislature will.

Senator Stroebel represents the 20th senate district of Wisconsin. He has been a member of the State Senate since 2015.