‘It’s gonna be tough.’ Wis. lawmakers brace for coronavirus impacts

Novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, is shown here in orange and yellow. Microphotography by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Rocky Mountain Laboratories, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.
Novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, is shown here in orange and yellow. Microphotography by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Rocky Mountain Laboratories, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

WASHINGTON — What support is available for people who have been laid off as a result of the coronavirus pandemic? Can health professionals get into locked-down nursing homes? Will state labs analyze test kits on weekends? 

Those were some of the questions asked of Rep. Mark Pocan, a Madison-area Democrat who held a virtual town hall on the crisis with his constituents on Tuesday evening.

Congressman Mark Pocan talks with media in his Madison office. Photo: Melanie Conklin

Pocan, like the rest of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation, is scrambling to respond to public anxiety as the spread of the virus speeds up and as the economy slows down. In addition to virtual town halls, lawmakers are holding conference calls with state and local officials and sharing information through the news media and on social media channels.

They’re also temporarily disbanding national and district offices and sending most staff home to work remotely, and following social distancing guidelines themselves. 

U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore
U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore via Flickr

Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) recently came into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and is under self quarantine. She told the Examiner she’s doing fine and not showing any symptoms of disease.

GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, meanwhile, was reportedly in close proximity to people who recently tested positive for the virus but spoke on the Senate floor Wednesday.

A major concern across the state and nation has been inadequate access to test kits and medical supplies, but those are increasingly available, Pocan told constituents. 

Democratic Rep. Ron Kind pointed to one hospital in the state — Froedtert Pleasant Prairie Hospital in Kenosha County — that has set up a drive-through testing system, which Kind hopes will soon be available statewide. “The ultimate goal is no-cost, at-home testing kits so people don’t have to leave the house to see if they have the virus,” he told the Examiner.

Kind and other members of the delegation sent a letter on Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requesting medical supplies from its national stockpile. The state, they wrote, is eligible for tens of thousands of surgical masks, gloves, respirators and more.

Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, meanwhile, is pleased with the quick uptake of social distancing measures among the state’s schools, child care centers and public meetings. “All of those are critical steps in flattening the curve of infection, slowing the spread of this disease and making sure that in future months we don’t overwhelm our health care system,” she said in an interview.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin speaking at a podium
Sen. Tammy Baldwin photo by ljlphoto.com
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She and other lawmakers are preparing for a massive emergency bill that could inject as much as $1 trillion or more into the economy to support ailing workers and industries. In addition to providing individuals and businesses with access to capital, Pocan said he and other lawmakers are pushing direct payments to individuals of $2,000 a month per adult and $1,000 per child.

The contours of the bill are still taking shape, but the New York Times reported Wednesday that the administration is considering $500 billion in direct payments to U.S. taxpayers and $300 billion to help small businesses meet payroll.

That package, if passed, would build on an $8.3 billion measure adopted earlier this month that funds research, treatment, vaccines and personal protective equipment for health care workers. 

On Wednesday, Congress cleared a second major bill that provides free access to tests; gives workers temporary paid sick leave; boosts unemployment benefits; strengthens government food programs for children, older people and those with low incomes and helps states meet expenses for Medicaid, the government insurance program for the poor. All Wisconsin Republicans voted against the COVID-19 relief measure.

The bill is “aimed at making it easier for people to socially distance themselves,” said Baldwin, who voted in favor of the measures.

100+ cases in Wisconsin

On Wednesday, Wisconsin reported 106 cases of COVID-19 in 14 counties. Nationwide, more than 7,000 confirmed and presumptive positive cases — and 97 deaths — have been reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cases have been confirmed in 50 states, the District of Columbia and several U.S. territories.

Johnson lauded President Donald Trump’s “decisive leadership” in responding to the pandemic, but the president has also drawn criticism for his response. 

Initially, it “felt like he was more concerned with the stock market than with people’s health and wellbeing,” Kind said, while Baldwin urged Trump to defer to health experts when addressing the public. “I think there’s greater confidence when we are hearing from them,” she said. 

At a time of intense partisan gridlock, members of both sides are hailing efforts to unify around emergency legislation. “The good news is that there’s a lot of agreement around what we want to do,” Johnson said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Wis. Republicans opposed relief efforts

There are still deep divisions about how to approach the crisis within the state’s congressional delegation, which Moore called “discouraging.”

Wisconsin’s GOP members of Congress — Johnson and Reps. Mike Gallagher, Glenn Grothman, Jim Sensenbrenner, and Bryan Steil — were in the minority of congressional Republicans who voted against the coronavirus package that passed the House over the weekend and the Senate on Wednesday. 

Grothman called it the “most rushed vote I’ve ever seen in all my time in public office” and said in a statement that the full cost of the bill was not available at the time of the vote. He and other Wisconsin Republicans also objected to the bill’s temporary paid leave provision, which Grothman said “puts many small businesses at risk of closure.”

Johnson tried and failed to remove the temporary paid leave provision during debate on the Senate floor, calling it a burdensome federal mandate that would likely become permanent. “As Ronald Reagan once said, the closest thing to eternal life in our lifetime is a government program,” he said.

Moore said she was relieved McConnell told his GOP colleagues to basically “suck it up” and vote for the bill even though they may not like everything in it.

Despite federal efforts to stimulate the economy, Kind and others said the top priority must be containing the virus.

Congressman Ron Kind

“The truth is there’s not going to be a lot that we can do to restore consumer confidence until we get a grip on this virus,” he told the Examiner. “We could throw all the monetary and fiscal policy today at this, but until we develop greater certainty that we’ve got this thing licked … it’s gonna be tough. It’s gonna be a tough economic road for awhile.”