In a Zoom call with reporters on Friday sponsored by the Milwaukee Press Club, Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson defended his controversial comments at the outset of the pandemic comparing COVID-19 to the flu and its death toll to traffic fatalities. He also repeated his suggestion that government officials were going overboard with stay-at-home orders that hurt the economy.
“I got pretty well excoriated in the press for having the temerity to actually say that, you know, we tragically lose 36,000 Americans every year on the highway and yet we don’t shut down our highways,” Johnson said.
Even as COVID-19 cases surge in states including Florida and Texas and governors there roll back their plans to reopen, Johnson stood by his position that it was inappropriate to close non-essential businesses, because “every business, every organization, is essential to someone.”
“It is nastier than the flu, there’s no doubt about it,” Johnson conceded. “I was hoping it wouldn’t be any worse but it certainly is.”
Still, he said, he thinks the U.S. economy has suffered unnecessarily from business shutdowns, and instead should have followed the model set by Sweden, quarantining the sick and vulnerable, “and then they allow the rest of their citizens to carry out their lives.”
Except for New York, where infection rates caused massive strain on hospitals, “our biggest problem is we’ve underwhelmed our health care systems,” Johnson stated, adding that it was a mistake to cancel elective surgery in preparation for a surge.
In fact, stay-at-home orders may have contributed to the current surge in infections, Johnson suggested.
“I think part of the reason you’re seeing a resurgence in cases, as we have opened up, is we have so much pent-up demand for socializing, and for carrying out our lives,” Johnson said, “I think people probably are putting themselves in situations they probably shouldn’t” — including, he noted, Wisconsinites who have been rushing out to crowded bars.
Voluntary mask-wearing and social distancing are the best way to combat the disease, Johnson said, adding that he wears a mask when he goes to the store. Government mandates are not necessarily, he said, because “people are smart.”
Asked what public schools should do in the fall, Johnson said, unequivocally, “Open up.”
“I think it would be crazy not to completely open up our school systems,” he said.
“Your risk having a serious side effect of COVID is extremely low,” Johnson explained, once again making the seasonal flu comparison.
“More children die of seasonal flu than they are of COVID. So, the only risk of opening up schools is potentially spreading the disease. We need to, again, understand the human toll of the economic devastation of keeping schools closed,” he said, adding that the results of distance learning were “not pretty” and parents are paying too high a price having to stay home from work.
Johnson reiterated his opposition to the trillions of dollars appropriated by Congress earlier this year to soften the pandemic’s economic blow.
“We still need to provide liquidity to the market,” he said. “But the $1,200 payments — where were people going to spend that? We do not have an unlimited checking account. And so I still don’t think we’re at a point where we need stimulus,” he said.
Johnson also defended the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic, which has been criticized for its slowness, and for Trump’s recent remarks calling for less COVID testing because “by having more tests, we have more cases.”
“We have certainly tested more Americans than any other country in the world,” Johnson said.
Johnson called Trump a “New York street fighter” who might rub people the wrong way if they are accustomed to “Wisconsin nice.”
But, “having spent some time with the president, I know he cares deeply about this country,” Johnson said. “And he cares deeply, for example, about the African American community.”
Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner have pushed for criminal justice reform, Johnson said, forcing Republicans in Congress to come around on the idea.
“Jared Kushner, because of his own personal experience with his father in prison, has a great empathy for any person, including, you know, members of the African American community,” Johnson said. “So, these are sincerely held views. Sincere empathy, sincere sympathy on the part of the president and people like Jared Kushner, members of his administration.”
In order to win in 2020, Johnson said, he would advise the Trump campaign to “let the American people see that side of the president.”
“Now, I realize he rubs people the wrong way,” Johnson added. “A New York street fighter, maybe doesn’t go over all that well with every Wisconsinite. But I also truly believe that President Trump in his heart of hearts equally is concerned about this country, wants it to do well, wants every American to do well and is doing everything he can to make that happen.”