Four weeks ago, the governors of seven Midwestern states pledged to closely coordinate when and how each state would reopen its economy amid the coronavirus pandemic by following “a fact-based, data-driven approach” that prioritized the health and safety of its citizens.
The governors — five Democrats and two Republicans from Michigan, Kentucky, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and Ohio — were clear from the start that not “every state will take the same steps at the same time.”
But, they insisted, “close coordination will ensure we get this right.”
“Over time, people will go back to work, restaurants will reopen, and things will go back to normal. We look forward to working together as one region to tackle this challenge together,” the governors said in a joint statement.
It appears, however, aside from a few phone calls among some of the governors and their aides, there is little actual coordination taking place, as each governor does what he or she believes is best for his or her own state, with minimal consideration of how their decisions affect the people and economy just across the state line.
“It was never our intent that we would roll out anything in tandem,” said Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat. “We said basically we were going to be focusing on some really important things, like testing, and contact tracing, as well as protective equipment, and also using some of the same metrics. And so we’ve been doing that, but the rollout in states is different, obviously.”
State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, criticized the collaboration as being “in name only.”
In special coordinated coverage today, reporters of the Midwestern reporting team of Lee Enterprises, which includes The Journal Times, review how various Midwestern states have responded to COVID-19 and how governments in the Midwest have, or have not, coordinated those responses.
A philosophical divide
The differences between the states may be most stark on the nearly 300-mile border separating Indiana and Illinois, where one governor sees COVID-19 as a problem to be managed, while the other is prioritizing prevention.
Last week, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, authorized nonessential retail businesses to reopen at 50% capacity in 89 of the state’s 92 counties, followed this week by half-capacity dine-in service in restaurants and the reopening of personal services businesses, such as hair salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors, in nearly every county.
If all goes according to Holcomb’s five-stage plan, dubbed “Back on Track Indiana,” business in the Hoosier State will be restored to normal by the Fourth of July.
Holcomb said even though he knows reopening will result in more COVID-19 cases, he’s confident Indiana hospitals have the critical care beds and ventilator capacity they need. He also said the state has sufficient testing and contact tracing resources to begin relaxing a stay-at-home order, which limited Hoosiers to their residences except for “essential” travel and employment. The Hoosier stay-at-home order began March 23.
“Without a therapeutic or a vaccine, unfortunately, we’re going to lose people all over the world,” Holcomb said. “So our effort going forward will be all about managing through this crisis.
“I’m praying for a vaccine. But we’ve got to do what we can do right now, and we’re taking the responsible steps and allowing folks to responsibly and safely return to some normal aspects of their life.”
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, is taking a much more conservative approach.
He announced last week business in Illinois will not fully return to normal unless and until there is a coronavirus vaccine or widely available treatment.
Pritzker’s reopening plan, “Restore Illinois,” slices the state into four regions and allows those geographic areas to move through reopening phases at different times based on established metrics.
The next phase will allow for the reopening of hair salons and barber shops, retailers, manufacturers closed under previous orders and other workplaces, all with limitations. No region will be eligible for these reopenings until at least May 29.
Illinois bars and restaurants would not be permitted to reopen to on-site dining in any region until at least the end of June. In this phase, schools and universities also could reconvene on-site classes. But until the coronavirus is conquered, public gatherings would be limited to up to 50 people in the Land of Lincoln.
Pritzker’s tough stance has drawn him praise in some circles, though critics have questioned key pieces of his plan, especially as neighboring Indiana is taking steps to fully reopen by Independence Day.
Mount Carmel, Illinois, Mayor Joe Judge said the mismatched reopening plans are especially problematic for border cities like his.
The southeast Illinois town of about 7,000, which borders downstate Knox and Gibson counties in Indiana, has suffered significant layoffs, not only with the shuttering of restaurants and retail but also with the plummeting of the oil and gas industry that is central to his area’s economy. With Indiana phasing in its reopening plan ahead of Illinois’ schedule, Judge said several hairdressers have applied for their Indiana licenses and plan to cross the border for work.
This summer, the aquatic center in Princeton, Indiana, about 10 miles from Mount Carmel, will be open for families, but Judge’s own city pool — which was able to make a profit for the first time last year — likely will have to remain closed, he said.
Wabash County, of which Mount Carmel is a part, only has recorded one confirmed COVID-19 case, an individual who since has recovered.
Holcomb said Indiana wants to be a good neighbor to Illinois, and, to that end, has kept Pritzker informed about the state’s reopening plans.
“You’re never going to get us to be 100% in alignment on 100% of all the issues in all the different sectors,” Holcomb said.
Pritzker, meanwhile, said looser restrictions in border states will challenge Illinois’ reopening plan “because we will see, potentially, infections across the border.”
“I can’t speak to the decision making that’s been made in those states. What I can say is I know that Gov. Holcomb in Indiana shares the same goals that I do, which is to make sure that we’re keeping people safe and healthy,” Pritzker said. “But I’m listening to the epidemiologists about what their best recommendations are in terms of timing and how we open these industries up.
“I’m going to do what’s best for the people of Illinois. I know the people of Illinois want to do what’s best for themselves, which means to me not going into these places that clearly are going to be potential hotbeds of infection and then coming back into your community or into your home.”
In Wisconsin, the governor’s office said Evers and his chief of staff have had regular conversations with other Midwest governors about which COVID-19 mitigation methods work, how to sequence the steps to reopen the states’ economies and the impact of the COVID-19 response on the agriculture industry.
Melissa Baldauff, an Evers spokeswoman, said the governors in the coalition are exchanging ideas, but making their own decisions on how best to reopen their states.
Within days of each other, Wisconsin and Michigan, for example, allowed nonessential businesses to open if they could provide services via curbside pickup.
“Everyone really agreed to follow the science,” Baldauff said. “That might look different in different states, but everyone agrees it’s the right approach.”
At the same time, it appears governors are missing out on other opportunities to share information.
Dr. Patrick Remington, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine, said Wisconsin would do well to share what it has learned from having to address outbreaks at meatpacking plants and higher infectious disease rates among its African American community.
But it doesn’t appear to be doing that, at least not through the channels of the Midwest governor’s coalition.
That could prove detrimental to neighboring Michigan, which is the 10th-most populous state in the country with 9.9 million residents but ranks third for its coronavirus death count, data show.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, routinely has emphasized that statistic in pleading with Michigan residents to stay home and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The state’s infection rate is equally alarming — about 550 per 100,000 residents, the highest of the Midwest states, even though neighboring Illinois is testing at a higher rate.
Michigan also has the highest fatality rate — at about 9.3%, data show.
Dr. James Conway, a University of Wisconsin-Madison infectious disease expert, said close coordination among states could be helpful in managing the pandemic.
“The more the communication there is, I’ve got to think that there’s at least a better opportunity to then collaborate and not create these disparities or these incentives for groups of people to suddenly be moving between places and potentially introducing or re-introducing disease into places where it doesn’t exist,” Conway said.
Conway said one of the most helpful ways to mitigate the spread of the virus would be for economic centers that do a lot of business with one another to be in close collaboration on COVID-19 responses. Pairings could include northern Illinois and Wisconsin, Eau Claire and La Crosse with Minnesota, Milwaukee and Chicago, and Chicago and northwest Indiana.
Doing so would prevent influxes of people from more restricted regions having an incentive to travel to less-restricted areas and potentially spreading the virus, he said.
Some Wisconsin state agencies reported collaborating with other states on their own, outside of the coalition.
Wisconsin’s Department of Health and Human Services, for example, mirrored Minnesota’s strategy of creating an online map of COVID-19 testing sites throughout the state.
Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp, who leads Wisconsin’s National Guard, said he’s been fielding questions from other state National Guard units about assisting in elections after Guard members stepped in to assist with the state’s April 7 election.
And following the example of other states, Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development has launched an online chat to answer questions about unemployment insurance, while the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs has collaborated with other Midwestern states on strategies to reduce the transmission of the virus at state veterans homes.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, agreed there are practical benefits to cooperation among Midwestern governors.
“A virus does not respect a border,” Walz said. “It certainly does not respect political differences.
“What I think is good about this is this is a bipartisan group of seven governors — two Republicans and five Democrats — who’ve worked together on other issues in coming together.”
Regardless of whether its governor favors a speedy or slow reopening, each Midwestern state has seen surges in unemployment and permanently closed businesses as a result of the measures taken to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.
The governors also have been subject to protests as some business owners and their workers object to the continued use of executive orders to keep their operations shut down for the foreseeable future.
Some 500,000 Indiana residents have filed for unemployment in the past seven weeks, more than double the peak unemployment tally the state recorded during the 2008-09 Great Recession.
“While we’re seeing an increasing number of claims in this extreme environment, we’re also seeing a record number of payments that we’re making,” Indiana Department of Workforce Development Commissioner Fred Payne said. “We’ve made a total of 1,391,774 insurance payments in the month of April.”
Indiana has paid out $732 million in unemployment insurance benefits, including $230 million in state benefits and $502 million in federal benefits, including the temporary $600 per week add-on.
In Illinois, 625 mass layoff events were reported in the first three months of the year, defined as a single business entity with 50 or more unemployment claims filed against it over a five-week period.
According to the Illinois Department of Employment Security, there were more mass layoff events in the first quarter of 2020 than in any full year since 2012. The leisure and hospitality industry experienced the most mass layoff events, followed by retail, business services and manufacturing.
Out-of-work Illinoisans have filed more than 1 million initial unemployment claims between March 1 and May 2, the latest date available from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. This is 12 times the number of claims filed during the same period last year.
Likewise, Wisconsin has faced skyrocketing unemployment claims, with more than 300,000 new and ongoing claims per week.
In Minnesota, unemployment in the Twin Cities metropolitan area leads the rest of the state, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development. Data show the initial wave of applications came from employees in the food and beverage industry. Retail sales workers now lead Minnesota in unemployment claims.
Iowa, which is not part of the gubernatorial coalition, nevertheless has suffered as well, particularly in its food processing plants, which have seen more than 1,600 confirmed COVID-19 cases — raising concerns about worker safety and potential disruption of the food supply.
Protesters push back
However, for some residents of these states, the bigger concern is keeping businesses shut down and people locked in their homes.
For example, Pritzker’s stay-at-home order has faced repeated legal challenges. The first came from state Rep. Darren Bailey, a Republican from the tiny downstate Illinois community of Xenia. Bailey claimed the governor violated Illinoisans’ civil rights when he extended his stay-at-home order beyond 30 days. The governor declared the lawsuit a “cheap political stunt.”
But in a blow to Pritzker, a judge in Bailey’s home county issued a temporary injunction allowing Bailey to disregard the order. It applied exclusively to Bailey but opened the door for other lawsuits.
The state appealed the decision, asking the Illinois Supreme Court to hear it. A few days later, Bailey asked the appellate court to vacate the order so he can file an amended challenge. Bailey argued he discovered new documentation the state should have provided.
In a lawsuit brought by a church, a federal judge sided with Pritzker, saying his amended order that allows up to 10 worshipers to gather does not violate religious freedoms, as the church claimed, in light of the grave concerns presented by COVID-19.
Illinois also has seen protests in front of Chicago’s James R. Thompson Center, where Pritzker holds his daily news briefings, and in Springfield, the state capital.
Even in Indiana, which is moving faster on reopening than other Midwestern states, protesters have signaled their displeasure with Holcomb by gathering outside the Governor’s Residence and the Statehouse in Indianapolis.
People carrying American flags recently stood close together along the street outside Holcomb’s home with signs reading: “If Holcomb’s job is essential, everyone’s job is essential!” and “Open Indiana Now!”
In Michigan, Whitmer isn’t backing down from her stay-at-home order, despite political pressure, court challenges from the state Legislature and racially tinged protests inside Michigan’s capitol building.
“The bottom line is we can’t move forward and re-engage everything until it’s safe to do so, and that means having enough tests, being able to do the tracing, having few enough cases and ensuring our hospitals are ready in the event we see cases go back up,” Whitmer said.
In virtual press briefings and other public appearances, including an interview with NBC’s “The Today Show,” Whitmer repeatedly has said Michigan is uniquely challenged because of its disproportionately high fatality count — one that demands tough stay-at-home restrictions.
But Republican lawmakers in the state’s House and Senate disagree. The two chambers resoundingly expressed disagreements with Whitmer in the form of a lawsuit Wednesday, arguing her most recent extension of her state of emergency through May 28 was unlawful.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, likewise has come under fire in recent days and weeks — including from his own political party — for his aggressive approach to combating the coronavirus crisis.
He’s been criticized by his own party’s Statehouse leaders and shelter-in-place protesters for sticking to his guns, ordering schools to close before anyone else and businesses to temporarily shutter to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In politically fraught Wisconsin, the state’s entire stay-at-home order could be thrown out any day by its conservative dominated Supreme Court; a hearing was held Tuesday, but no decision has been made yet. If that’s the case, Republicans would have a far greater say in how the state moves forward.
Under Evers’ reopening plan, which mostly aligns with the White House guidelines, the state would begin reopening businesses after a 14-day downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses and COVID-19 symptoms and a 14-day downward trend in positive tests as a percent of total tests.
If the state Supreme Court strikes down the plan, however, there’s a chance the state could open within days, or the governor may need to acquiesce to Republican demands for the state to allow businesses in less-affected regions to open sooner. This past week, Evers showed he was warming to the idea.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, largely avoided such criticism by never issuing a formal shelter-at-home order for Iowa, similar to Republican-led states to the west, including Nebraska and Wyoming.
Reynolds consistently encouraged — but never required with the force of law — Iowans to practice social distancing when in public. She also implored them to only go out in public when necessary and to stay home when feeling sick or after having come in contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
“The reality is that we can’t stop the virus. It will remain in our communities until a vaccine is available,” Reynolds said. “Instead, we must learn to live with COVID virus activity without letting it govern our lives.
“This level of mitigation is not sustainable for the long-term, and it has unintended consequences for Iowa families. So we must gradually shift from an aggressive mitigation strategy to focusing on containing and managing virus activity for the long-term in a way that allows us to safely and responsibly balance the health of our people and the health of our economy.”
Lee Enterprises Midwest reporters Dan Carden and Lauren Cross, The Times of Northwest Indiana; Molly Parker, The Southern Illinoisan; Riley Vetterkind, Wisconsin State Journal; Josh DeLarosa, Winona Daily News; and Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief, all contributed to this article.
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