A big business lobby’s proposal that would scrap Gov. Tony Evers’ COVID-19 battle plan and open up the state’s economy more quickly got a friendly airing by Republican lawmakers Thursday at a hearing that omitted testimony from public health professionals.
Business operators and trade associations — the only invited witnesses at the hearing before the Assembly Committee on State Affairs — reported huge financial losses and described their efforts to ensure workers and customers were safe from the virus. Several asserted that the Evers administration’s extension of the state’s Safer at Home order through May could cripple their businesses irreparably.
“The impact of shutting down our economy and keeping it shut down has been devastating, and frankly it’s getting worse every day,” said Scott Manley, chief lobbyist for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which put out the Back to Business Plan that was the subject of Thursday’s hearing.
But committee Democrats at the hearing, which was conducted partly in person and partly over Skype, expressed skepticism about both the WMC plan and the witness list that had been drawn up by Republican leaders.
“We have a real strong concern about who is not on the speaker list,” said State Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee), who mentioned workers and health care professionals. “Any decision we make should be driven by science and with the opinion of medical experts, not just business.”
Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), a restaurant owner and chair of the committee, left open the possibility of additional hearings, suggesting there could be a follow-up as soon as next week.
“I am more than happy to call this a first attempt to try to vet ideas,” he said. Responding to a letter from Democrats on the committee complaining about the sudden scheduling of the hearing, he added that its purpose was “by no means a bashing of the [Evers] administration.”
At the end of the meeting, which dragged on hours past its scheduled 5 p.m. stopping point, Swearingen said he would like to see Evers and WMC get together to find a compromise between their conflicting approaches.
Manley told legislators the WMC plan was aimed at reversing the effects of the economic shock caused by the suspension of business activity under the Safer at Home order. Those include 450,000 unemployment claims, driving the jobless rate to 19% — “twice as high as the worst days of the Great Recession” of 2008 — struggling restaurants and food service businesses as well as dairy farms, and a 50% drop in non-restaurant retail foot traffic.
He cited a recent survey that found 35% of operators of businesses that have closed down since the March 25 Safer at Home order said they would have to stay closed permanently if the shutdown lasts three months.
The WMC plan calls for the state to adopt what it calls a regional approach in deciding what businesses should open, instead of following a single, statewide rule.
Referring to one of the rationales for the shutdown — to prevent healthcare providers and hospitals from being overwhelmed by patients — Manley observed that “four out of seven regions of our state have more hospitals than patients” diagnosed with COVID-19.
The WMC plan relies on a complex algorithm that incorporates details about a business based on its industrial classification as well as data from the county where it’s located, including the COVID-19 infection rate, the population density, the risk of COVID-19 transmission associated with the type of business, and local hospital capacity. Manley said “stakeholders from the medical community” reviewed the algorithm’s risk factors and provided “additional input we incorporated into the model.”
The plan envisions a website that the state Department of Health Services (DHS) would set up. Businesses would enter their information, and the website algorithm would calculate risk factors for the business based on guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The steps a business would have to follow to reduce the potential spread of the virus would depend on the resulting calculated risk level. Requirements could range from social distancing measures and increased sanitation to requiring personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers or reducing operations in order to increase social distancing.
“We know one size fits all doesn’t always work,” Manley said — using a phrase that came up frequently among the many speakers supporting the WMC model.
Testing and tracing
The Evers administration plan expands testing for the virus and intensive contract tracing — both of which are not in the WMC plan. Rep. Marisabel Cabrera (D-Milwaukee) suggested that omission would undermine the plan’s risk algorithm.
“What we also know about this virus is that people can transmit it even when they’re asymptomatic and haven’t been tested,” Cabrera said. Yet the formula, she pointed out, uses the local county’s infection rate.
“It sounds to me that that would be an inaccurate number,” she said, “so I would think part of your plan should include some kind of testing and contact tracing in order to accurately reflect what is happening in any area.”
“We think that testing and contact tracing is a really important part of the strategy for how we move forward and defeat this virus,” Manley said, adding that the administration’s testing and tracing program would be “on a parallel track and in conjunction with our plan.”
Cabrera asked if that meant that WMC views its plan as a supplement to the Evers Badger Bounce Back plan.
“Our plan would be a replacement for the Badger Bounce Back plan, which we think is flawed,” Manley replied. “To the extent that the plan references a goal for increasing testing and a goal for increasing contact tracing, we’re supportive of that.”
Sinicki several times pointed out the difficulty of relying on regional differences in infection rates given that as the state opens up, people are likely to travel to different parts, potentially carrying the virus without knowing it. Cabrera noted the spike in Brown County due to outbreaks there.
That same problem has been brought up by various public health experts who have called a regional approach much riskier than a statewide one.
Representatives of the restaurant, tavern and dairy farming industries all spoke about the shutdown’s impact on their operations and their belief that the state needed to do more sooner to open up so they could survive in business.
The business downturn has had a major impact on manufacturers, said two industry executives, Waupaca Foundry CEO Mike Nikolai, and Dane Manufacturing owner and CEO Troy Berg.
Berg said Dane has so far avoided layoffs or pay cuts, but it has also lost money in April and projected greater losses in May and June.
“No business can continue to operate at a loss to remain viable,” he added. “At some point bankers and creditors step in.”
Both also said that their plants are in communities that have not seen significant infections reported to date, and they’ve had no infections among employees.
“I don’t understand the governor’s one-size-fits-all approach to this shutdown,” Berg said.
State Rep. Tod Ohnstad (D-Kenosha) commended both men along with Metcalfe Markets president Tim Metcalf for their efforts to keep employees on the job and safe. But he also noted that some of the data on the disease’s spread throughout the state has changed since WMC’s report — with new cases surfacing in places once thought to be free of the disease.
“Even though we’ve seen some progress… we have not flattened the curve,” Ohnstad said.
WEDC chief’s perspective
The one Evers administration official invited to testify was Missy Hughes, CEO and secretary-designee for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
Hughes pointed to what she called “places of agreement” among competing views of how to move the state forward: emphasizing public health first, using data to guide decisions, and the notion that any process of opening up was “not flipping a switch” but instead moving gradually.
“Recovery can only truly start with assurance – assurance that we understand the risk, that we have the tools in place to mitigate the risk, and that we are prepared if and when we are faced with additional outbreaks or surges. That assurance will come from our public health community,” said Hughes.
When she heard about the WMC proposal, she said, she contacted the group’s president Kurt Bauer, and with DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm and Department of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan, got an overview of the plan. “I found it thoughtful and reasonable,” Hughes said. “I am not, however, a public health expert… I will therefore leave assessment of a public-health tool to the public health experts.”
In the meantime, Hughes said, WEDC has been working with businesses to help them access funds, including from the federal CARES coronavirus relief act and other sources, and to otherwise prepare for the time to open up again. In addition, she emphasized, the Evers plan has already shown it is able to open up state business activity bit by bit in response to new information about the disease and its spread.
“We have a path forward — the Badger Bounce Back plan,” Hughes said. “And as we move through that path we’re taking steps along that way.”
A doctor speaks
Although no public health specialists were invited to testify on Thursday, Republicans did extend that offer to an emergency room doctor, former GOP state representative Erik Severson, who spoke from Osceola.
Severson told lawmakers the loss of elective procedures in rural hospitals such as the one where he practices was causing financial strain. “The biggest thing for us would be getting a way to have elective surgeries open again, especially considering our county has only had four cases” of COVID-19, he said.
But asked why, Severson several times inaccurately blamed the state’s emergency orders, and offered the issue as a reason to adopt the WMC plan.
Ohnstad told Severson he recently joined a call when it was reported that the Wisconsin Hospital Association was recommending that hospitals should resume elective procedures. Based on that, Ohnstad said, “I’m not sure what’s prohibiting them from doing that.”
Severson strengthened his assertion, claiming that “one of the government decrees” forbade elective surgeries. “We’re trying to obey the law,” he said, and a moment later, added, “as far as we know the governor’s told us, ‘no elective surgery.’”
In fact, there’s no such language in the Safer at Home order or other orders.
To avoid overwhelming their staff in anticipation of a surge of COVID-19 patients, many hospitals did voluntarily put off elective procedures, something recommended by the CDC. That recommendation has now been relaxed, however.