‘We put the value of human life at a higher level’

'Safer at Home' may be a hit to the economy, but alternative would be more widespread death, public health experts say

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer with the Dept. of Health Services answers questions during a COVID-19 briefing via phone on 03/24/20.
Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer with the Dept. of Health Services answers questions during a COVID-19 briefing via phone on 03/24/20.

As the latest state public health order takes effect Wednesday to curb the rapidly spreading COVID-19 infection by halting most social contact, the state’s business community’s response ranged from  support to silence.

One of the state’s largest business organizations,the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), was among the strongest voices for going ahead with the shutdown that Gov. Tony Evers announced Monday and unveiled Tuesday in his  “Safer at Home” order.

Both the MMAC’s president, Tim Sheehy, and its chairman, Jonas Prising, CEO of Milwaukee-based ManpowerGroup, issued statements endorsing the order. “This decision by Gov. Evers will add to our economic hardship, but it is also necessary to reduce the real health risks,” Sheehy stated.

Announcing the action Monday, Evers said, “I had a conference call [Sunday] night where business leaders were insistent — were insistent — on having the safer at home order.”  In an interview with the Milwaukee Business Journal published Tuesday, Sheehy said he, Prising and six Milwaukee executives from MMAC were at the other end of that call.

Sheehy told the paper that company executives who had operations in Italy and China, along with medical advisors from the Medical College of Wisconsin and Advocate Aurora Health Care, had persuaded MMAC in favor of further restrictions.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) Bureau of Communicable Diseases, said that the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 has been shown to be “highly transmissible, even from people who have mild symptoms.”

Elsewhere in the world, the number of infections has been doubling in about six days, Westergaard said at a Tuesday afternoon DHS media briefing, but in the U.S., “the number of cases reported in some states has doubled in three days.”

“We’re very concerned that this could develop much larger very quickly,” Westergaard said. “That’s really the justification for the measures that we’re talking about.”

Blocking ‘non-essential’ business

The stay-at-home order, which takes effect Wednesday at 8 am., blocks all “non-essential” business and nonprofit operations. Exceptions include minimal activity to maintain inventory, preserve property and security and process employee benefits and payrolls; or working from home.

The order continues with earlier orders closing schools, libraries and personal service shops such as hair salons, bars and restaurants except for the service of food for delivery or carryout, and a variety of commercial parks and entertainment. It also bars all but essential travel.

The order makes exceptions for grocery shopping and seeking health care as well as human services, such as counseling, adult day care and a range of other services. It also lists a number of exceptions for businesses that are permitted to continue operating, including grocery stores, laundry services, hardware stores, gas stations, construction projects, food and beverage production and transportation, mail and package delivery, building trades, banks and other financial institutions and legal services.

Hotels and motels may operate, but must close pools, hot tubs and exercise facilities, and must prevent guests from congregating in common areas.

The complete list of forbidden and permitted activities and businesses can be found in the order.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation has a page listing them as well, where business operators also can make an inquiry about being listed, at https://wedc.org/essentialbusiness/.

A DHS web page for employers is at https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/covid-19/employers.htm.

Business reaction

The MMAC’s endorsement of the “Safer at Home” order stood out Tuesday among business groups. The state’s largest business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, had not posted any comment on its website about the order as of late Tuesday.

Rep. John Nygren

In a statement distributed Tuesday on Twitter, State Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, said: “Since learning of the order, I have received numerous phone calls from businesses in my district who are uncertain of their future which is now turning into fear.” Nygren didn’t directly oppose the action, but did complain that Evers had shifted abruptly after telling Republican legislative leaders last week that he didn’t plan to go to a more drastic shutdown order.

On  Monday and again on Tuesday, Evers reiterated that he had originally thought such an order would not be necessary until late in the weekend.

Another business group, the National Federation of Independent Businesses Wisconsin chapter on Tuesday said a random-sample survey of 700 members found that 76% had already suffered effects from the coronavirus outbreak.

Although the organization didn’t take a stand on the state’s new order, the NFIB statement announcing the survey results did call on state and federal lawmakers to pass measures to “lessen the economic hardship being experienced by our state’s small business community.”

So far, however, the official reaction in Wisconsin hasn’t mirrored Pennsylvania or Michigan, where business groups pushed back on shutdown orders from those states’ governors.

In Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump stated at one point on Tuesday that he would “love to have the country opened up … by Easter.” Earlier, he suggested on Twitter Sunday night that social-distancing measures, because they have slowed the economy, risked a “cure … worse than the problem itself.”

Economy or people’s lives?

Asked about that characterization on Tuesday, Evers said, “Obviously we want a strong economy — who the hell doesn’t? But the fact of the matter is we put the value of human life at a higher level.”

Dr. Nasia Safdar
Dr. Nasia Safdar (Photo courtesy of UW School of Medicine and Public Health)

Dr. Nasia Safdar, a University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health professor of infectious disease, also disputes the idea that economic considerations might outweigh attempts to prevent the spread of the virus.

“From the public health standpoint that argument doesn’t really hold water,” Safdar tells the Wisconsin Examiner.  “Health systems are drowning, patients are dying, they’re staying on ventilators, mild cases suddenly require ICU care. So the disease is pretty bad, and I cannot think of a situation where we could argue that the cure is worse than the disease.”

The state order is “yet another way to enforce what leaders have been saying all along, that you have to maintain that physical distancing of 6 feet to be able to interrupt transmission of COVID-19,” Safdar says. “It’s pretty clear that this intervention is really the only successful way we have to prevent transmission of a virus to which no one in the population has any immunity because no one has seen it before except for those that have now recovered from it.”

As drastic as the state’s order is, “we know at the community level it’s the only thing that works and it’s something that the community can do right now without any equipment or supplies or anything else, all you have to do is not do certain things,” she adds. “If you approach it from that perspective, you might find it easier to comply.”