Joshua Upham stuffed twin, ladybug dolls into the headlight wells of his black two-door 1957 Studebaker Silver Hawk.
His daughter Jada Upham, known by family and her Parker High School classmates as “Jada-Bug,” sat quietly in the grass at Monterey Park while her dad decorated and readied the shiny, shark-finned coupe for a car parade to honor Parker graduates on Saturday afternoon.
Jada Upham was one of dozens of students from Parker’s class of 2020 who motored through downtown Janesville in a student-organized auto parade that culminated in a social-distanced, de facto graduation walk through a park shelter at Traxler Park.
The event came after the high school decided against a regular, in-person graduation ceremony amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Saturday was Parker students’ one shot at donning a green cap and gown and taking collective victory lap together to celebrate their high school graduation.
The parade’s organizer, Parker senior Hanna Grove, was whipping the parade procession into shape a few minutes before noon. She stopped to take stock of the dozens of her classmates, some with their parents, who were waiting to go.
Grove hadn’t seen many of the students since March, when schools shut down during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“Yes, it’s been a strange year,” Grove said.
She turned away and looked out over the Rock River that lies beyond the circle drive at Monterey Park, where about 25 or 30 cars idled, waiting for the parade to begin.
“I think I’m going to cry,” she said.
On Saturday afternoon, Parker grads’ families hot footed it to a spot along a parade route Grove had set up.
On South Jackson Street, Cheryl and Mark Cleasby waited along the sidewalk near the apartment where their granddaughter Amelia Lewis lives. It was the place they’d figured Lewis would be most likely notice them.
Amelia couldn’t have missed her grandparents because Mark Cleasby was wearing a red, Hawaiian shirt, and he had a 3-foot-by-4-foot white sign with green lettering that read: “WE ARE SO PROUD OF YOU, AMELIA LEWIS.”
Cheryl Cleasby said she was disappointed their granddaughter’s graduating class didn’t get all the pomp of a regular commencement, but Cleasby said she was surprised and “very impressed” that a Parker student had set up a graduation parade.
Cleasby said she’s even more proud of what the granddaughter had accomplished in the midst of a school year cleaved in two by a COVID-19 shutdown. She said Lewis during her senior year had boosted her grade-point average up above 3.5. Their granddaughter is moving on to jobs at Woodman’s Markets Janesville corporate offices and at local retirement village Cedar Crest.
“She’s finding her way, and that’s a big thing to be thankful for right now,” Cleasby said.
At Traxler Park, where the parade route ended, graduates one-by-one walked through a park shelter that had a bag of gifts for each of the 80 or so Parker grads who’d registered for the parade.
An emcee announced each student’s name, and cars still waiting in the parade procession blared their horns to cheer each student that passed under the pavilion in a green cap and gown.
Parker students were like anyone graduating high school in 2020 under the shadow of a global pandemic that has cast uncertainty over the recent months and their future.
The lyrics of an R&B song playing on a loudspeaker during the modified graduation walk that fleshed out the uncertain path young people face now: “I have these dreams … but I can’t move or speak…”
Jean Brown, one of the Parker grads who participated in the parade on Saturday, plans to attend UW-Green Bay this fall and study creative writing. She wants to be an English teacher and a writer.
She’d topped her graduation cap with a book she’d crafted. The pages lay open, and they read: “I am going to write the world that I want to live in.”
Brown called Saturday’s ceremony a “unique and heartwarming” experience that she and her classmates can take away from a year in which COVID-19 seemed to steal away many moments of a senior year.
“After all the fear and everything everyone has gone through and disappointments, this really means something,” Brown said. “It’s more fun, it’s more special and, I think, more memorable than a regular graduation (ceremony).”
Although Brown said she can’t know how her freshman year as a college student will go, she keeps reminding herself of one thing she believes would be good advice for Parker’s Class of 2021:
“You’ve got to roll with changes,” she said. “That’s the lesson we’re learning.”
On the lazy-flowing Sugar River and on the curvy, two-lane roads in and out of Albany, the brisk business of river tubing shows itself to be a predominant force of late.
All day on weekdays and weekends alike, the river this summer is nearly constantly dotted with clusters of nylon inflatable tubes topped with tank-top and swimming suit-clad tubers in shades.
Roads up and down the river carry a steady stream of crew vans, pickup trucks and a big, blue school bus that curries tubes and tube riders back and forth from a public access drop-off in downtown Albany and a pickup spot along the river a few miles south.
Operators of Sweet Minihaha Campground and S&B Tubing—two competing outfitters of river tubing excursions out of Albany’s downtown—said the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major driver in the burgeoning crowds of tubers this summer.
The ranks of people taking to tubes on the river in downtown Albany on some days can sew up street-side parking for several blocks, and the influx of people can easily double the daytime population of the Green County community of 1,000.
Sweet Minihaha’s tubing business recorded 1,300 customers on just one Saturday in mid-July, said Trinity Johnson, a worker at the campground’s clubhouse.
“Thirteen hundred people in a day is a lot. It’s been a record crowd for us almost every Saturday this summer. Weekdays have been busy, too,” Johnson said.
“I think it’s because we’re the only thing open in the area, that’s one thing. People have been stuck inside, and they want something to do this summer. Plus, we have a lot of people coming up from Illinois because it’s a still a pretty hard (COVID-19) shutdown there. They’re coming in waves.”
On Sunday afternoon, a nearly continuous stream of people floated south on the river, all of them drifting out of Albany’s downtown on big orange, blue and yellow tubes. They were embarking on a three-hour float as the sun baked through high cumulus clouds in the 93-degree heat.
Most parking spots on the side streets downtown were full. Some had Illinois plates, while others had placards from Madison-area auto dealerships.
One group of tubers shouted to a reporter along the bank that they’d traveled from Madison.
The group had seven tubes lashed together with twine. One tube encircled a plastic cooler filled with cold drinks. Another tube had a portable speaker that blasted country music.
They floated downstream on the dark olive-green water, moving at a crawl.
“That’s a good-sized group, but sometimes you’ll see even bigger groups, like 20 or 30 tubes tied together,” Albany resident Marcella Otter said. “You could use a great-big group of 30 tubers like that as a bridge to practically walk across the whole river and not get wet,” Albany resident Marcella Otter said.
The backyard of Otter’s house on Mill Street is just south of downtown, where tubers take to the river from an access ramp next to S&B Tubing. It slopes down to the west bank of the Sugar River.
Otter said this year is the first year she’s seen river tubers park their cars up and down her residential street on the weekdays and weekends.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen that. It’s been busier with the tubing this year, without a doubt. It’s noticeable,” Otter said.
On Saturday afternoon, at S&B Tubing in Albany’s downtown, Jenny Bryant stood in the rental yard along the river, waiting for her drivers to bring back a load of tubes. A long line of customers grew and snaked on sidewalks to the west and south of S&B, around the corner at River and Main streets.
One crowd of tubers from Madison carried a cooler and cases of White Claw hard seltzer hashed out with an S&B staff member how long they’d have to wait in line before drivers brought back more tubes from downriver.
Bryant said the demand for tubing rentals on Saturday ended up being much brisker than was the flow of the river, which has reached its midsummer low stage.
“It depends on the weather. Every once in a while this time of year, we can run out of tubes during the day. The river’s at its slowest right now, and it takes longer for people to float downstream,” Bryant said.
Bryant believes the crush of weekend tubers is not dramatically different than previous summers. But, like staff at Sweet Minihaha, Bryant said she’s seen no real tapering off of crowds during the weekdays. Unlike other years, it’s busy no matter the day.
S&B earlier this summer shut down briefly to retool the sidewalk area next to the tube rental with markings so big groups of tubers waiting to get on the river stay 6 feet apart.
That, Bryant said, is to adhere to public health guidelines for social distancing during the ongoing pandemic.
On the river, Bryant said, the tubing business treats people who show up in groups as “family units.” The effort, she said, is to keep different groups waiting in line separately.
At Sweet Minihaha, staff tries to limit areas where people register for tubes to one person from each group, a staff member who declined to give her name said.
Bryant said she’s not surprised to see steady daily crowds, given that more people during the pandemic seem to be gravitating to outdoor activities.
“I didn’t know what to expect this summer. I didn’t know if we’d be allowed to reopen at all. But then a week before we’d planned to open we found out that Green County wasn’t really going to enforce any (coronavirus) rules,” Bryant said. “I guess I kind of liked the idea of easing back in, phasing in gradually. But we’re sort of where we’re at now based on what the state decided.”
Authorities reported July 18 that Ben Belzer, a 25-year-old personal assistant to Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, drowned on the Sugar River after he apparently went off a tube while disembarking from a tubing run south of Albany. The incident apparently happened near a pickup spot at the end of S&B’s tubing run.
The incident remains under investigation by Green County authorities, but Belzer apparently had rented a tube from S&B.
Bryant declined to comment on the drowning or speculate on how it might have happened, saying she didn’t want to hamper an investigation.
“We’re waiting (for investigation results) to understand what happened,” she said. “If there’s something we can do better, then, absolutely, we would.”
Waivers require tubers who rent from S&B and Sweet Minihaha to agree to wear life vests the companies provide. S&B also notifies tubers that they’re incurring their own risk of injury while tubing and that people incur their own liability for potential COVID-19 transmission when they participate in any group activity.
One group of tubers, a set of five college-aged adults, waited in line Saturday at S&B. They had driven from DeKalb, Illinois, to go tubing on the Sugar River. They all wore face masks, although few others in line in front or behind them did so.
One of the Illinois group, DeKalb resident Nate Green, was surprised to show up to a busy public place and find few people wearing face coverings. He chalked it up to the differences between Illinois’ heavier COVID-19 mandates and Wisconsin’s more laissez-faire approach to business reopening.
“The whole idea of this was to get outside and get away from crowds. I guess I’ll be more comfortable, I’ll be fine, when we can get out on the river and stretch out,” Green said. “I’ll take off the mask then.”
Mattie Jean Ashford
Fae I. Canaday
Dean A. Gallup
David G. Kinnick
Arlene M. Long
June M. Mikrut
Sharon Lee Stremick
Rita A. Volkmann
Joyce Josephine Warren
With the November election 99 days away, more Americans say the country is heading in the wrong direction than at any previous point in Donald Trump’s presidency, putting the incumbent in a perilous position as his re-election bid against Democrat Joe Biden enters a pivotal stretch.
A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research also finds Trump’s approval for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic falling to a new low, with just 32% of Americans supportive of his approach. Even Trump’s standing on the economy, long the high water mark for the president, has fallen over the past few months after seeming ascendant earlier this year.
Those political headwinds have sparked a sudden summer shift in the White House and the Trump campaign. After spending months playing down the pandemic and largely ignoring the virus’s resurgence in several states, Trump warned this past week that the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. After repeatedly minimizing the importance of wearing masks to limit the spread of the virus, Trump urged Americans to do exactly that. And after insisting he would press forward with a large convention in August, the president announced he was scrapping those plans.
Trump’s abrupt about-face underscores the reality of the situation he faces just over three months from Election Day. Even as he tries to refocus his contest with Biden on divisive cultural issues and an ominous “law and order” message, Trump’s re-election prospects are likely to be inextricably linked to his handling of the pandemic and whether voters think the country will head back in the right direction under his leadership.
The AP-NORC poll makes clear the challenge ahead for Trump on that front: 8 in 10 Americans say the country is heading in the wrong direction. That’s more than at any point since Trump took office. The poll also finds just 38% of Americans say the national economy is good, down from 67% in January, before the pandemic upended most aspects of everyday life.
Biden’s campaign is eager to keep the final months of the campaign focused squarely on Trump, confident that the former vice president can emerge victorious if the contest is a referendum on whether the current commander in chief has succeeded during his four years in office.
“People are sick and tired of a government that is divided and broken and unable to get things done,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager. “What people feel like they’re getting from Trump right now is a hodgepodge mess of self-interested political talk.”
The past few months have proven to be beneficial for Biden’s campaign. He managed to swiftly consolidate the Democratic Party in ways Hillary Clinton, the party’s 2016 nominee, struggled to do. Biden’s fundraising, a weakness for him in the primary, has surged, allowing his campaign to build out infrastructure and start ad spending in both traditional battleground states and more aspirational targets, including Texas and Georgia.
Biden has also benefited from Trump landing on the wrong side of the public in his initial reactions to the pandemic. For example, 3 in 4 Americans back requiring people to wear masks in public, which Trump initially dismissed.
Another pandemic test for the president lies ahead in August and September, as Trump and his administration aggressively try to sell a skeptical public on reopening schools. The poll finds that about third of Americans are opposed entirely to the idea, while close to half say major adjustments to instruction will be required.
The limitations the pandemic placed on the candidates’ ability to travel and hold large rallies have also played more to Biden’s strengths. While Trump relishes headlining rallies at packed arenas, Biden is less adept in those settings. He has instead spent the past several months delivering speeches to small groups of invited guests and journalists within driving distance of his home in Delaware and holding virtual events with supporters and donors.
Trump argues that shows Biden doesn’t have the stamina for a full-blown campaign; Biden’s advisers say voters want to see their leaders abide by the same public health guidelines they’re urging others to follow.
Democrats have been buoyed by public polls finding Biden ahead of Trump both nationally and in some battleground states by a comfortable margin. However, Biden advisers caution they expect the race to tighten in the final stretch before Election Day as more Republicans who might be dissatisfied with Trump’s job performance gravitate back to their party’s leader.
Overall, 38% of Americans approve of the president’s job performance—well within the narrow range that Trump’s approval ratings have stayed throughout this presidency, but down slightly from earlier this year before the pandemic. Most Republicans—81%—approve of Trump’s job performance, but just 68% of Republicans support his handling of the pandemic.
Publicly, Trump and his advisers say they have been here before: underestimated and counted out. They point to public polls throughout the summer of 2016 that showed Trump trailing Clinton, only to eclipse her on Election Day.
But privately, Trump’s political aides and allies have spent months trying to sound the alarm bells for the president, warning that he could lose the Midwestern battlegrounds he carried in 2016, as well as some reliably red states, if the trajectories of his campaign and the virus continue.
One of the most concrete signs that Trump recognized he had gone off course came this month, when he demoted longtime campaign manager Brad Parscale, replacing him with experienced GOP operative Bill Stepien.
Stepien told reporters he expects the campaign to “be a knock-down, drag-out fight to the very end.”