Several thousand people turned out Saturday to hear President Donald Trump give a speech in which he boosted law enforcement, called Democrats “sick” and the media “corrupt,” and touted his own good health and a set of new medical treatments he said helped him recover from his recent bout with COVID-19 within days.
Trump’s message leaned heavily on pro-law enforcement themes while giving only brief glimpses into his own health after being sick with the novel coronavirus earlier this month.
Trump also downplayed recent spikes in COVID-19 in such states as Florida and Texas, places that he said made turnarounds later on, and suggested that fully reopening local and state economies would outweigh any adverse effects of the virus.
The president delivered his remarks in front of an overflow crowd of several thousand at an hourlong, fly-in speech outside a private hangar at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville—the largest community in a region of southcentral Wisconsin health officials said has become a cauldron of new COVID-19 infections.
The rally came about a week after Trump emerged from a short hospitalization and a White House quarantine after his infection apparently ran its course. The president had planned to visit Janesville earlier but canceled his visit after he tested positive for the virus.
It also came after health officials reported a record jump in new novel coronavirus cases in Wisconsin on Thursday and Friday, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
According to data released Friday, the state reported 3,861 new infections. That was a record for new cases, topping the 3,747 new cases reported Thursday.
The sobering trend has had health and public school officials worried statewide. Democratic leaders in statements released Friday and Saturday slammed the president for his choice to make fundraiser and campaign stops in Wisconsin.
It was the first time Trump has stopped in Janesville since 2016, when he was campaigning for president.
Trump seemed jovial and focused under bright lights and a cadre of enormous flags hung next to stadium-style seating on a section of tarmac Saturday night. He leapfrogged from topics including the economy and jobs, international trade, immigration, and social unrest and violence over police-involved shootings, all while casting his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, as a non-contender: “Let’s face it, (he’s) shot,” Trump said.
He called Biden “the worst candidate” and said the challenger’s effort only “makes us (the Trump campaign) stronger.”
In some polls, Biden leads Trump by 6 or 7 percentage points, although Biden and Trump will likely battle in Wisconsin to win key metropolitan voting blocs such as Milwaukee.
A private airport hangar owned by Beloit businesswoman Diane Hendricks’ company ABC Supply served as Saturday’s venue.
Trump’s campaign had announced earlier the appearance would be a fundraiser, but the plan changed midweek when the campaign announced a rally open to the public.
While some who attended said they came from Illinois and even Michigan to see Trump speak, the president made no bones about why he took a quick flight from another event in Michigan earlier Saturday.
Trump said it’s crucial he and other Republicans shore up the vote in Wisconsin, a key battleground state, in the general election in less than three weeks.
“If we win Wisconsin ...” Trump told a crowd that campaign officials Saturday estimated at about 8,000 people, “we win the whole ballgame.”
“What the hell do you think I’m doing here on a freezing night? I’m not doing it for my health. I’m doing it for this,” Trump said, gesturing toward supporters who surrounded his podium in front on the ground and behind and to the sides in tall bleachers hung with American flags that snapped in a 25 mph wind.
Trump wore a signature red campaign hat he donned because he joked the breeze Saturday at the airport would wreck his hair.
“I’d been having a good hair day,” Trump said.
Trump joked Saturday but also tried to hammer home a message of fear to the Midwest crowd. He made an unusual analogy during the tail end of his 75-minute address, pointing out how rally organizers blocked part of the rally grounds with large truck trailers.
Likening that arrangement to a wall, he renewed his 2016 campaign pledge to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Trump hailed federal agents and police for arrests made near the border, evoking an image of a lawless frontier where agents have worked to make arrests in “thousands” of murders he said undocumented immigrants are responsible for.
Trump also railed against the “far left” and Democratic-run cities he said are full of liberal “slaves.” He blamed Democrats for the sometimes violent protests that came after various police-involved killings and shootings this summer, including the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha at the end of August. Trump also claimed he has done more work in law enforcement and social reform aimed at helping Black people than any president “except Abraham Lincoln.”
When Trump did touch on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, he steered mostly clear of digging into recent headlines about recent spikes in coronavirus infections in Wisconsin communities, including Janesville and Rock County.
Trump said that “reopening” states would help the country bounce back from the pandemic, and he again promised he would see to it that every American hospitalized with COVID-19 got for free the same drug therapy he had earlier this month, calling the therapy, known as Regeneron, “unbelievable.”
Trump also called drug companies’ work toward a vaccine for COVID-19 “unbelievable.”
By contrast, Trump warned Biden would slow the development of a vaccine, leave states shuttered with coronavirus restrictions indefinitely and put the economy in doldrums.
A portion of the rally crowd was wearing masks, but some people, about half the crowd, were not. One man in line said he saw everyone get a digital temperature check before they were allowed in line.
Not everyone got in. At least 400 people, including a young man fully clad in a Revolutionary War patriot’s regalia, stood close together outside the rally gates watching the crowd inside. A campaign volunteer tossed 20 “Make America Great Again” hats to those in the front of the overflow crowd.
Meanwhile, in Rock County, the county’s public health department reported 1,030 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, a 66% jump from two weeks ago. Particularly concerning, county health officials said, is that earlier this week, the county logged a 40% increase in infected school-aged children.
Nick Zupan, who is the county’s epidemiologist, told Janesville business leaders in a conference call this week that the reason for the increase in cases is likely adults spending more time at bars, restaurants and other places where crowds gather indoors.
All the while, a partisan court fight over Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ crowd restrictions and masking order continues. The state Supreme Court earlier this year threw out Evers’ safer-at-home declaration. Evers urged Trump and his campaign to require face masks at his Saturday rally.
Before Trump took the stage, Wisconsin’s Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson told reporters that despite a reported spike in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations, he thinks medical care for people sick with COVID-19 has improved since earlier this year. Johnson didn’t cite any numbers or data, but he said he doesn’t think hospitals are overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.
A week ago, the state’s health department reported that statewide just 16% of hospital beds were available. That prompted the state to open up a field hospital on the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds in West Allis for people who are sick with COVID-19 but nearing recovery.
Kari Zimmerman, a Beloit volunteer for the Trump campaign, was wearing a cloth mask Saturday as she directed reporters to the press seating area at the rally.
Zimmerman said she doesn’t normally wear a mask, and she continues to believe it’s a “personal decision” whether to wear a face covering. About half those attending the rally wore face coverings.
Like Johnson, Zimmerman believes the health care system is treating COVID-19 cases more adeptly than this spring. She is not overly concerned about the recent spike in cases reported or the possible risks public health officials see in large-scale gatherings like Saturday.
“I do believe the cases might be going up, but it seems like the death rate is staying the same. I don’t want to sound mean or not sensitive, but people are going to catch viruses. No death is OK, but death happens,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman said she was casting an absentee vote for the general election, one of more than 780,000 in the state expected to do so.
Unemployed and without an income since earlier this year when the state shut down most businesses and public places because of the pandemic, Zimmerman said she is more worried about when the federal government might release more stimulus funds for people scuffling in a continued sluggish economy.
Zimmerman thinks Trump might want to pull the trigger on more stimulus, but she believes Democratic leaders in Congress won’t get serious about negotiations.
“They’re holding off to try to kick the president out of the White House,” she said.
Trump’s campaign said in a disclaimer that anyone attending the event understands the risks of possible COVID-19 infection at a public gathering. Such disclaimers have become pro forma for attendees of Trump campaign events.
Janesville Democratic state Rep. Deb Kolste and Susan Johnson, a Janesville City Council member, held a video conference Saturday morning hosted by the Wisconsin Democrats.
Kolste and Johnson slammed Trump for what the two called a “failed national pandemic response” they say has led to a coronavirus case spike locally and statewide and a series of local and national “economic crashes” tied to the pandemic.
Ava Pennycook took a drink of flavored water and realized it tasted like nothing at all while on her way to see a doctor for what she thought was mononucleosis.
She had been fatigued, dizzy, nauseous and in pain for about six days.
On July 25, Ava learned she was positive for COVID-19, not mononucleosis.
She is still experiencing symptoms three months later.
And she’s not alone.
Ava, a 15-year-old Parker High School sophomore, is what doctors consider a COVID-19 long hauler.
Long haulers experience symptoms of the disease for weeks and months after being infected with the novel coronavirus.
Although no longer contagious, long haulers live for months with much of the pain, discomfort, mental health issues and stigmas associated with the disease that has infected more than 7 million people across the country.
Ava is opposite the profile many people associate with COVID-19 sufferers: She is young, athletic, healthy and had no pre-existing health conditions prior to being infected, her mom Amy Pennycook said.
Mark Mounajjed, infectious diseases specialist at Mercyhealth, said the risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 looms for everyone.
It is inaccurate to believe COVID-19 only harms the elderly or sick, Mounajjed said.
Young people and healthy people have lower chances of becoming very ill, but it remains possible, Mounajjed said.
Doctors are unsure why some people become long haulers and others do not, Mounajjed said.
The uncertainty around COVID-19 is why people should remain cautious and abide by safety guidelines such as wearing masks and social distancing, Mounajjed said.
Ava said everyone should take COVID-19 seriously because her experience has changed her life dramatically.
“You really don’t want it (COVID-19),” Ava said.
The Pennycooks followed every safety precaution and stayed home as much as possible when the pandemic hit, Amy said.
As summer came, Amy wanted her daughter to stay safe but continue to do things normal teenagers do— learn how to drive, get a job, hang out with friends.
Amy said she let Ava start a new job at Frostie Freeze and take driver’s ed classes because both places seemed safe and the risk for Ava low.
If anyone in the family was going to suffer from getting the virus, Amy assumed it would have been her or her husband, Scott.
Ava became fatigued, dizzy and light-headed while working one day at Frostie Freeze. She had to walk away and sit down because she felt like she would faint.
Ava worked four shifts at her first job before getting sick. Her symptoms carried on so long she was not able to return to the job before the ice cream stand closed for the year.
She doesn’t know how she got the virus. None of her co-workers or driver’s ed classmates had the disease that she was aware of.
She might have gotten the virus while working, Ava said, but there is no way to know for sure.
Ava spent three weeks in bed after testing positive. Leaving her room was exhausting, she said.
Over the course of three months, Ava has experienced shortness of breath, chest pain, hot flashes, exhaustion, body aches, headaches, stuffy nose, nausea, loss of appetite, dizziness, nose bleeds, memory loss and confusion.
The symptoms come and go. Occasionally, Ava will have a couple days where she feels much better, but then the symptoms come back, she said.
She began carrying an inhaler, something she never had to do before, to help with her breathing, Ava said.
Ava has been less active in the last five months than she has been in the last five years, Amy said.
Ava is a member of Allstar Cheer, a competitive cheerleading team that travels the country to compete. Cheer season lasts almost the entire year.
Normally, Ava spends four days a week in the gym for Allstar Cheer and another couple days for Parker High School’s varsity cheer team, Amy said.
Since getting COVID-19, Ava goes to Allstar cheer practice and can mainly watch or learn some of the routine. For high school cheer, she is mainly watching from the sidelines.
Ava’s high school cheer coach allowed her to postpone her official tryout until she is feeling 100%, Amy said.
Ava said it is hard to watch her peers cheer without her, but she knows the importance of not testing her physical limitations.
Meanwhile, many of the other teenage experiences are passing her by.
Amy said the scariest part now is Ava’s short-term memory loss and confusion.
Ava will lose focus in the middle of a conversation or forget what someone just told her, Amy said.
Ava is scheduled to see a pediatric neurologist at the end of the month to check if there are any serious issues.
Meanwhile, Ava is going to school and trying to keep up, although exhaustion often catches up to her, she said.
There is not much doctors can do to treat long haulers, Mounajjed said.
It is hard to say how many people are long haulers, or how many people truly have been infected because some people show no or mild symptoms, Mounajjed said.
Some people don’t get tested while the virus is active but then later get sick.
Mounajjed said he’s gotten several phone calls from community members who say they had COVID-19 months ago and are still sick.
“Not much you can do but keep going,” Mounajjed said.
There’s a wide spectrum of illness severity.
Some people show no symptoms, some have a cold. Others end up in the hospital or dead. Lung damage and blood clots are being seen in groups of people who survive, Mounajjed said.
There are two things Mounajjed said people really need to know: Masks do work, and herd immunity will not happen without a vaccine.
Some people have suggested letting as many people get sick as possible to create herd immunity, but Mounajjed said that would cause a lot of pain and death and might not be effective.
The Infectious Disease Society of America in an email to members last week said the idea of creating herd immunity without a vaccine is “inappropriate, irresponsible and ill-informed.”
COVID-19 sufferers are also experiencing mental health issues surrounding the disease. Many patients are reporting having depression during or after infection, Mounajjed said.
“It breaks my heart when people say ‘I will get it (COVID-19), and I will get immune,’” Mounajjed said.
There is not enough research yet to know if and for how long COVID-19 patients are immune from reinfection.
Ava and Amy said they get frustrated by people who don’t take the disease seriously.
Some of her peers make jokes about the disease, and others don’t believe her when she said she had it and is still sick but not contagious, Ava said.
One kid joked that Ava should cough on him so he could get sick and skip school, she said.
Amy said she has worried about whether it is her fault her daughter got sick because she let Ava do some activities out of the house. Sometimes, she feels guilty.
The family has felt somewhat isolated because most people they know have not gotten sick.
Amy found a Facebook group for COVID-19 survivors, which she said has helped her feel supported and validated about her daughter’s condition.
There is little known about how long COVID-19 could impact long haulers. Amy said she worries about Ava’s future and whether this will hinder her forever.
“She’s way too young to be dealing with this,” Amy said.
Aletha J. (Cookson) Ash
Bonnie L. Clapper
Vivian “Marie” Luebke
George David “Dave” Patrick
Earnest G. Precourt
Hailey R. Richardson
Malcom E. Skinner Sr.
Vicky A. Stone
At dusk Friday in the heart of downtown Janesville, a set of automated lights under the bridge decks flashed brilliant blues, reds and purples off the surface of the Rock River.
The lights produced a brighter display of color than even the blazing autumn leaves on trees downtown. They’re one of the showiest attractions at the new Mick & Jane Gilbertson Family Heritage Pedestrian bridge and ARISE East Side Town Square on the riverfront in downtown Janesville.
The city and private stakeholders who for years have worked toward the multi-million dollar addition to the existing town square on the river’s west side celebrated the grand opening of the square and the bridge, a public-private revitalization effort more than a year in the works.
Larry Squire, a Janesville bank executive and one of the private stakeholders in the revitalization project, told a crowd of a few hundred that the scene Friday night, and the future of downtown, just got several shades brighter.
“We have something here that is going to inspire a lot of people for a long time. And it will be a catalyst downtown,” Squire said. “We’re in great shape.”
The Blain Gilbertson pedestrian bridge is considered a capstone for the first phase of privately funded improvements through ARISEnow, and it’s part of $6 million in privately funded improvements along the river corridor downtown.
At the bridge’s center is a metal sculpture that arches overhead—an impressionist rendering of four interlocked trees that create an arbor on the bridge, replete with glass leaves designed to reflect and capture lights on the bridge and sculpture.
One Janesville woman, Macy McBeth Ryan, stood in the middle of the bridge in wonder Friday evening. She looked up at the tree sculpture, then scanned the crowd that had gathered for the public space’s grand opening.
“It’s all beautiful. I think it’s totally going to revitalize downtown. Arts and culture have such a place in rejuvenation,” Ryan said. “I look at it as living proof of how this community is united and proof that resiliency and creativity go hand-in-hand.”
On Friday, Julie Seales, an apartment tenant whose upper-floor condo has a deck overlooking the river, the new bridge and the pavilion, said she was awestruck by the new town square.
“We’ve lived here since the whole riverfront was turned to dirt and rubble,” Seales said. “It’s been unbelievable to see this take shape. At first I thought it would be a little footbridge, but look at it. Every day it seemed to get bigger, and grander and fancier.”
The privately funded pedestrian bridge is meant to be a community gathering space for various uses, including river gazing, weddings, photo shoots and other uses, the lead donor for the bridge, Blain’s Farm & Fleet CEO Jane Blain Gilbertson, said Friday night.
She said the bridge’s centerpiece tree sculpture, conceived as a symbol of resilience and unity between the city’s east and west sides, was carefully designed to be a focal point but not block views of the natural river surroundings and downtown.
Yet, the 25,000-pound sculpture is predominantly visible from any vantage point at the town square, which is by design.
Russell Smoak, the structural engineer who co-designed the sculpture, said the most difficult part of installing the big, white set of interlocking metal trees was to line up the segments.
On paper, the tree’s flange connections were designed to interlock and interweave branches that rise from the metal tree trunks. But aligning the sculpture’s segments after attaching their bases to bridge pilings required some “field adjustments,” Smoak said.
“You can sit and dream in the sky, but then you have to look in the real world and see whether two sides will marry up,” Smoak said. “But in this case, after a little bit of extra work, they did. They married up. It all really came together.”