The lawn chairs were set up over the swath of lawn.
Kids did crafts or ran around randomly. Adults shared memories and phone photos, while others planted flowers, hung up baskets of red geraniums or found a spot for a new bird feeder.
The event was like a series of little family reunions all held at the same time and place: Willowick Assisted Living in Janesville.
On Friday, Willowick threw a surprise party for its residents. All of the residents’ families were contacted and asked to come to Willowick starting at 1:30 p.m.. The visits would be held outside the windows because nursing homes and other facilities for seniors are closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The goal was to have a celebration “together while apart,” activity coordinator Rachel Quintero-Piccolo said.
That’s pretty much what happened. Around the building, groups clustered around windows. Some sat in chairs for a leisurely chat at window level, while others sat on the grass.
Sue Matzke came to visit her father, Milton “Woody” Woodman, 89, and there was a lot of laughter coming from that set of double windows.
The two bantered back and forth about dogs, cars and, of course, haircuts. Woodman’s hairstyle made him look like a cross between Mark Twain and Albert Einstein, and both comparisons made him laugh.
Woodman said if he was either of those guys, he’d have a bunch more money. Where was that money? he asked his daughter.
Then his daughter suggested that he put his hair in a ponytail, and that made him snort with laughter.
Woodman said he missed visits from his daughter’s Newfoundland puppy. Before the pandemic, his daughter and the dog could come into the building.
“A dog is good for a person,” Woodman declared.
That’s true, but it’s also probably true that visiting Woody Woodman would make you a better person—or at least a happier one.
Heather Czosnek and her four kids visited her mom, Shirlee Jensen. The kids had window markers and were writing backward messages of love on their grandmother’s window. That way, their grandmother could read them from her side of the window.
Czosnek said it was hard for her kids to visit Grandma this way. They wanted to see her for real, without the uncomfortable masks and without a window between them.
For her part, Jensen missed going out for shopping trips and other expeditions.
“My mom is just one of those people that likes to get out,” Czosnek said. “We used to go to Bodacious Brew for music on Fridays.”
When asked where she wanted to go shopping once the pandemic was over, Jensen said, “What stores are left?”
At another set of windows, Jaxon Hall, 4, rummaged through his mother’s purse just long enough to find a $20 bill. He waved it around in the air and proposed that he give it to his great-grandmother, Barb Devoe.
His mother, Lindsay Halley, had to explain that he couldn’t put it through the screen. He kept on waving it as if that would help. Never mind—it kept people entertained.
Quintero-Piccolo said Willowick’s residents and their families were weathering the pandemic restrictions fairly well. No doubt Friday’s celebration helped.
“Our families have been so supportive,” she said.
For months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the nation ached together in televised memorials, joining in a collective catharsis of uniformed salutes, bagpiped dirges and President George W. Bush declaring a national day of mourning and remembrance.
The space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986 turned classrooms into grieving sessions, with President Reagan directly addressing the national wounds. The Japanese attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor in 1941 was a day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt said would live in “infamy,” uniting the mainland to enter a world war.
Yet as the nation nears 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 —far more than all those tragic events combined or the entire Vietnam War _ there is little sense this Memorial Day weekend that Americans are grieving together or uniting in a sense of purpose.
While Americans have shared undeniable hardships since March—including more than 38 million people forced to file for unemployment, and tens of millions more forced to hunker down at home to avoid the contagion _ the carnage is hitting them unevenly.
President Donald Trump, loath to dwell on those dismal figures, is both stoking the polarized response and counting on a fragmented experience to distract the nation from the almost incomprehensible death toll—nearly triple that of any other country—which could tar his presidency and jeopardize his chance for reelection in November.
“I don’t think we’re taking this in,” said David Kessler, an author of six books on grief.
“It’s easy to digest a statistic. It is not easy to digest 12 plane crashes a day,” Kessler said. “Especially when there are no visuals. We aren’t seeing 90,000 caskets. That kind of stuff would shock us. Maybe this is too big for us to comprehend.”
In this hyper-partisan era, opposing camps have found a way to bicker over the dead as just another talking point, especially as Trump has cast criticism of his administration’s response as driven purely by politics.
Still, the two sides reached a rare accord Thursday after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-New York. asked Trump in a letter to lower U.S. flags to half-staff this weekend as a tribute to the dead. Trump tweeted hours later that he would do just that for three days “in memory of the Americans we have lost to the coronavirus.”
During a visit to a Ford factory in Michigan earlier Thursday, Trump read from prepared remarks, saying “we hold in our hearts the precious memory of every person that we have lost, and we’ve lost too many” in a speech otherwise peppered with political boasts and gibes.
But earlier this week, with the elderly most at risk from COVID-19, he dismissed some of the deceased as “very old, almost dead” and sought to frame the ever-rising fatality count as evidence of a successful government response, arguing that “millions” more would have perished had the government not mobilized at all.
Critics have lambasted his administration’s response as slow, callous and incompetent. And new estimates by Columbia University researchers concluded that social distancing orders even a week earlier in March would have saved 36,000 lives, or more than a third of the fatalities so far.
Polls show clear divisions in the way Americans experience the virus and view its grim impact —cutting along race, geography and especially political party.
“Very few people knew anyone who died on 9/11, but it was not ‘those people,’” said Cornell Belcher, a pollster who worked for President Obama and other Democrats. “It was all of us.”
“That’s not happening this time around,” he said. “There are two sides driving their own narratives.”
Black, Latino and other racial and ethnic minority groups have been hit especially hard by the virus, partly due to greater likelihood of preexisting medical conditions and lower access to healthcare, especially in poor communities.
The deaths have been highest in Democratic-leaning coastal states like California and New York, and crowded urban centers like Detroit, Chicago and New Orleans, where hospitals were initially overwhelmed. Most have seen a dramatic drop in admissions in recent days.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, a poll this week by the Economist/You Gov showed blacks were nearly three times more likely to know someone who has died from COVID-19 than whites. A CNN poll found that self-identified liberals were more likely (47%) to know someone who has the virus than self-identified conservatives (34%).
While the contagion has spread to more rural, more conservative areas, many of those stricken so far are immigrants who work in meatpacking plants, inmates in prisons and residents in nursing homes and other elder-care facilities. Many cannot vote.
Democrats have tried to draw attention to the deaths and in some case use them as a political cudgel against Trump in the presidential race.
A super PAC aligned with Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) launched an ad this week that interspersed images of Trump golfing and downplaying the disease while a woman emotionally recounts her father’s death and a ticker tallies the growing fatalities.
“In November, we are literally voting for our lives,” the woman says.
Trump has focused on numbers throughout the crisis.
Early on, he assured Americans that infections would drop to zero and dismissed the disease as no worse than the flu. He said publicly that he was reluctant to allow a cruise ship to dock with infected American passengers because it would make the nation’s case count rise.
He has repeatedly accused China’s authoritarian government of downplaying its national death toll, while his allies question whether the U.S. numbers are inflated; evidence suggests COVID-19 deaths more likely were undercounted. He also has accused the World Health Organization of letting China conceal the virus, letting the danger grow, and threatened to cut off U.S. funding.
Because U.S. cases and deaths far exceed any other nation, Trump has relentlessly argued that the figures appear inflated because more testing is done here.
But the country’s sluggish start on testing is widely blamed for the higher death toll because since it slowed the response.
“It’s almost irrelevant that the numbers are people. He switches them, mocks them—he does everything with these numbers to avoid the fact that these are people,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University.
Zelizer argues that Trump’s version affects how the rest of the country experiences the pandemic, reducing deaths to a number on a television screen and diminishing the “human introspection in terms of what the death toll is compared to wars.”
Obama’s solo singing of “Amazing Grace” at a 2015 service for the nine black worshipers killed at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., became a seminal moment of his presidency. Bush’s impromptu comments through a bullhorn at ground zero—his arm around a firefighter— was his. Lincoln’s stirring address at the Gettysburg cemetery is crucial to the national canon.
But Trump speaks rarely and mostly only in passing of the emotional toll the deaths have taken on the nation’s psyche, or the countless individuals grieving for loved ones.
He didn’t mention the victims once in his relentless Twitter feed in recent days, focusing instead on explosive political charges against China, Democrats, the media and other perceived foes and targets.
The White House disputed the perception that Trump has shown a lack of empathy, complaining that the media overlooks phone calls and other tender moments with people who have suffered.
After more than a month of downplaying the threat, Trump pivoted in mid-March and called himself a “wartime president” leading the nation against an invisible foe. More recently he has praised Americans who defy stay-at-home orders as “warriors” fighting to revive a moribund economy.
Unlike other wars, the nation’s dead now are not hallowed or honored, however.
The mounting death toll during the Vietnam War, a staple on the nightly network news broadcasts that then were Americans’ chief source of information, was critical to the shifting of public opinion against continued U.S. engagement because it contradicted the success story pitched by generals and successive presidents.
Frances FitzGerald, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of America’s war in Vietnam, said the political lines around Trump are drawn so rigidly that grieving the dead has become a political act. And even those most critical of Trump are still cycling through their anger and personal anxiety before they reach the mourning stage.
“I think it will come because right now everybody’s still sort of scared, scared for themselves” of catching COVID-19 and thus not yet able “to grieve for others,” she said. “So it’s a little too early.”
Marguarite Lynn Ames
Betty Jean Evans
Karen L. Maurina
Harold C. Olson
Dr. Ronnie B. Wapotish
Janesville’s hospitals have begun offering antibody testing, but the impact those test results will have on the pandemic are yet to be seen.
Mark Goelzer, medical director at Mercyhealth, said there is still a lot to learn about antibody testing and how it will help health officials better understand COVID-19.
Antibody testing shows whether a person was infected sometime in the past with the novel coronavirus and now has antibodies created in response to the virus.
An antibody is a blood protein the body produces to fight viruses, bacteria and other foreign substances.
Antibodies can protect the body from getting some diseases twice, however, it is not known yet if or how many antibodies are needed to protect someone from getting COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, more than once, Goelzer said.
“More information is still being learned about COVID-19, said Erica Mathis, spokeswoman for SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville, in an email to The Gazette.
“As such, there is still not enough evidence to know what a ‘positive result,’ or having the antibodies, really means for an individual.”
Antibody testing can provide peace of mind for people who think they had the disease or have been in the contact with the virus but were never tested, Goelzer said.
Shortages of test supplies at the beginning of the pandemic made it difficult for people with mild or no symptoms to be tested.
People who test positive for antibodies should not assume they have natural immunity for the disease.
Those who test positive should not stop taking precautions such as wearing a face mask or social distancing, Mathis said.
The test can help identify who could donate plasma to help with coronavirus research and treatment, Goelzer said.
Plasma with antibodies can help neutralize the virus in sick people before it becomes a problem. This has been done locally for some people, Goelzer said.
Those looking to be tested should contact their primary care physician, Mathis said.
All are is eligible as long as they are not presenting symptoms of COVID-19, in which case they should be tested for the virus, not the antibodies, Mathis said.
Health officials are still determining the cost for antibody tests at Mercyhealth, Goelzer said.
Mercyhealth is sending tests to an outside lab and is waiting to see what the lab will be charging for processing, Goelzer said.
Many insurance companies are still deciding if or how to cover the antibody tests, Goelzer said.
Antibody tests are supposed to be covered under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, Mathis said.
People should still check with their insurance plans to discuss coverage and costs, Mathis said.
Concerns have been raised nationally about the accuracy of antibody testing as the production of tests was rushed in response to the pandemic.
Goelzer said the tests at Mercyhealth are “pretty accurate” so long as someone gets tested in the appropriate time frame.
Testing within the first four to seven days of having the illness might not work because the body has not had enough time to produce antibodies, Goelzer said.
City Manager Mark Freitag said a phrase he learned while in the military sums up his attitude toward the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I do not want to rush to failure,” Freitag said.
Rock County officials this week chose to drop the county’s safer-at-home order and begin a phased reopening to get businesses up and running after months of partial or full closure.
Now is the time to do something, Freitag said.
But the city manager said he feels “cautiously optimistic” about reopening because the coronavirus is still present in the community and likely more present than it has been so far.
He raised concerns about data released Thursday showing the greatest day-to-day increase of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Rock County, a jump from 452 cases to 493.
Health officials say the jump is likely reflective of increased testing at public testing sites in Beloit this week.
Everyone will have to work together in following safety protocols to keep the community safe, Freitag said.
“We do not want to create a bigger problem by not operating within guidelines,” Freitag said.
Freitag answered the following questions from The Gazette:
Gazette: How confident are you businesses will adhere to recommended safety guidelines?
Freitag: Just like with everything, there will be people who go above and beyond, people who will meet expectations and people who will not try, he said.
He believes most businesses will abide by the recommended guidelines set out by the city and county.
But if there is a problem locally, it likely will stem from the attitude of people who refuse to try, he said.
Gazette: Why are some city facilities still closed?
Freitag: His biggest concern is preserving city manpower so essential services can be provided, he said.
City Hall is still mostly closed to the public with the exception of the first floor customer service window.
Facilities such as the wastewater treatment plant, fire station, police department and water utility center house workers with specific skills, and they need to be protected so the city can keep running, he said.
The city’s ice arena and senior center are under consideration for reopening.
Contact sports are discouraged but hockey programs have asked the city to reopen for training and drills, Freitag said.
The senior center, which caters to a vulnerable population, likely will remain closed for a while.
Gazette: Does reopening change the work being done within the emergency operations center?
Freitag: The center’s activation level has been demoted from a level 3 to level 4, meaning workers will continue to monitor data, manage personal protective equipment and communicate with the public and facilities that are vulnerable for outbreaks.
Gazette: When will the city consider dropping its state of emergency order?
Freitag: The nation, state and county all still are under states of emergency and likely will be for quite some time. The emergency operations center will continue to operate as long as the state of emergency is in place.
Countries that experienced the virus earlier than the U.S. are starting to see second waves of it.
“I would be speculating to give a particular date or time,” Freitag said. “I think it will be a while.”
Gazette: Is the city planning for what it can do if there is a significant increase in cases?
Freitag: We are prepared for a significant increase, he said.
If the situation gets worse locally, the city can assist health care centers with its medical surge shelter and personal protective equipment.
The city can reduce service levels and turn things off that have recently come back online.
The city also is prepared to call for public testing sites, such as the ones recently used in Beloit, if need be.
Gazette: What would you say to people who might feel anxious about returning to public life?
Freitag: “I would encourage them to get out and give it a try as long as they are comfortable. You have to use common sense.”
Freitag said he uses his gut to tell him whether a situation is safe.
If he walks into a store where many people are not wearing masks, he turns around and walks out, Freitag said.
“People need to use their own personal compass for what feels right,” Freitag said. “If they’re not ready, no harm no foul.”