A bartender and patrons at downtown Janesville tavern Wiggy’s Saloon tuned in Tuesday night to hear Gov. Tony Evers issue an advisory recommending people stay home and businesses allow employees to work remotely as the coronavirus surged to a record peak across the state.
They said they didn’t hear anything new.
In a Tuesday night address, Evers said projections show the death toll could double in a matter of months, and he urged people to stay home and continue wearing face coverings in public under an order he set earlier this year that faces a legal challenge but otherwise isn’t set to expire until later this month.
Evers told Wisconsinites he plans a package of COVID-19 bills in days to come, but for now, the governor is advising people to avoid gathering in big numbers at bars and private social gatherings.
It’s a bell the governor has been sounding for months, and on Tuesday night patrons and staff at Wiggy’s said they didn’t think they heard anything new in the governor’s address.
One patron, Janesville resident Dave Thobe, sat among a group of six or seven other patrons drinking bottles of Miller High Life and eating an order of cheese bread.
Thobe called Evers’ address “a pep talk intended to keep people calm in the short term.”
“We weren’t really sure what it was the governor was getting at. It seemed like this kind of wishy-washy thing,” said a Wiggy’s bartender who identified herself only as Tammi.
“We were waiting to hear something different, some new rules or something the governor hasn’t been saying this whole time, but we didn’t,” she said.
Evers, a Democrat, announced the advisory in an unusual evening address the same day the state broke daily records for COVID infections and deaths. Evers streamed the address live on his Facebook page and YouTube channel.
He has sounded the same themes for months during twice-weekly news conferences to little avail. He warned in his speech that deaths could double to 5,000 by January if something doesn’t change.
“So I want to be clear tonight: Each day this virus goes unchecked is a setback for our economic recovery,” Evers said. “Our bars, restaurants, small businesses, families, and farmers will continue to suffer if we don’t take action right now—our economy cannot bounce back until we contain this virus.”
Evers’ administration has made no recent headway against the virus largely because of opposition from state Republican lawmakers and their conservative allies.
The governor issued a stay-at-home order in March but the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck the mandate down in May after a challenge from Republican lawmakers.
A state appeals court last month blocked Evers’ order limiting gatherings in bars, restaurants and other places. And the state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Monday on the latest legal challenge to Evers’ statewide mask mandate, which remains in effect.
The governor issued the stay-at-home advisory in the form of an executive order but it carries no weight in light of the Supreme Court decision in May. The advisory states that the governor recommends staying at home and businesses should let employees work remotely.
The advisory goes on to recommend that people avoid gathering with anyone from outside their homes, maintain social distancing and wash their hands frequently.
Other than to recommend people stay home if sick, the governor on Tuesday did not recommend any new COVID mandates or recommendations for how public schools should handle the statewide spike in the virus.
Evers did promise during his speech to present a package of legislation addressing the virus. He did not say what measures the bills would enact, and he didn’t give details about when those bills could be unveiled.
Republicans control the Legislature, which hasn’t met since April, when it passed a coronavirus aid package.
Pressure has been building for the GOP to act but so far Republican leaders haven’t signaled they plan to do anything.
“But now, as we put the election behind us, we are called upon to remember the things that unite us—and that includes the struggles that we share,” Evers said in his speech. “I am concerned about what our current trajectory means for Wisconsin health care workers, families and our economy if we don’t get this virus under control.”
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported a record 7,073 new confirmed infections Tuesday. That breaks the previous record of 7,065 cases set Saturday. There were 66 new deaths related to COVID-19 on Tuesday, breaking the previous record of 64 set on Oct. 27.
The state has now seen 278,843 infections and 2,395 deaths since the pandemic began in March. Wisconsin was fourth in the nation in per capita infections over the last two weeks at 74,452 cases per 100,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins University. North Dakota was first, followed by South Dakota and Iowa.
The Wisconsin Hospital Association reported that 2,070 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Tuesday afternoon, a record. The state has set a record for daily hospitalizations every day since Nov. 2.
Evers echoed statements he’s made in the past both months ago and recently, saying Tuesday night that “it’s not safe to go out. It’s not safe to have others over. It’s just not safe. And it might not be for a while yet.”
He said deaths from COVID “are not foregone conclusions, they are predictable and preventable.”
Evers suggested that people forgo large gatherings at bars and restaurants, and he recommended that people eschew big holiday gatherings that would include people outside immediate family, although nothing in his order Tuesday night required people to adhere to the advisory.
Evers highlighted projections for COVID-19 deaths statewide in a statement the governor’s office released earlier on Tuesday.
He said if there are no new or additional COVID control measures taken, epidemiology researchers believe Wisconsin could be on pace to reach as many as 5,000 to 5,900 COVID deaths overall by Jan. 1, 2021.
Under two other scenarios, the state’s source claims, the state could fare marginally better—or much worse.
Data the state uses shows that a “universal” public masking mandate could slow the growth in new COVID cases 16% to 20% over the next two months.
But under another scenario, an “easing” of public COVID mandates such as mask wearing and social distancing measures, the data projects that COVID cases could peak dramatically, perhaps somewhere between a 47% and 88% rise in cases.
The data indicates that if masking rules or other measures were eased or removed, Wisconsin could hit 6,900 total COVID deaths by Jan. 1—with as many as 11,200 deaths by New Year’s Day, the data source indicates.
All those projections come from recently updated data released by the University of Washington research group the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The group’s data is widely cited by state and local governments nationwide as a main method to track COVID-19 infections and deaths from the virus.
In Rock County, 15 new patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 between Monday and Tuesday. That’s a record for a single-day increase in hospitalizations for the virus, county health officials reported.
Wiggy’s Bar staff and patrons said that like some other bars, the tavern has seen a drop-off in business in the last couple months as a COVID-19 spike has hammered the state and Rock County.
Thobe said he opts not to wear a face covering while he’s in a bar drinking a beer, but he wears masks publicly, something he said is “out of respect for other people.”
He said he is worried about bars such as Wiggy’s that he said have responded to COVID and countywide recommendations by eliminating dart league and cards nights to limit crowds.
“I keep a pack of masks in my car, and I use them. But I feel like things have gone on to the point now that you can’t just go around encouraging people to stay out of businesses or to shut down small businesses again,” Thobe said. “It’ll destroy some of them.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday there’s “no reason for alarm” as President Donald Trump, backed by Republicans in Congress, mounts unfounded legal challenges to President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory—a process that could now push into December.
Republicans on Capitol Hill signaled they are willing to let Trump spin out his election lawsuits and unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud for the next several weeks until the states certify the elections by early December and the Electoral College meets Dec. 14.
McConnell’s comments show how hard Republicans are trying to portray Trump’s refusal to accept the election results as an ordinary part of the process, even as it’s nothing short of extraordinary. There is no widespread evidence of election fraud; state officials say the elections ran smoothly. The delay has the potential to upend civic norms, impede Biden’s transition to the White House and sow doubt in the nation’s civic and electoral systems.
Trump remained out of sight at the White House, tweeting his views, but the social media company Twitter swiftly flagged the president’s tweets that he actually won the election as disputed.
“It’s not unusual, should not be alarming,” McConnell told reporters on Capitol Hill. “At some point here we’ll find out, finally, who was certified in each of these states, and the Electoral College will determine the winner. ... No reason for alarm.”
Democrats were livid, saying McConnell and Republicans in Congress are so afraid of Trump they are willing to risk the nation’s tradition of an orderly transition.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said the president is “undermining faith in our elections.”
Biden, taking questions from reporters in Delaware, called the president’s refusal to concede an “embarrassment.”
“How can I say this tactfully?” Biden said. “I think it will not help the president’s legacy.”
Biden said he understands Trump voters’ “sense of loss.” But he said, “They understand we have to come together. ... We can pull the country out of this bitter politics.”
Trump’s GOP allies in Congress have largely declined to congratulate Biden, even though privately many Republicans doubt Trump has any legitimate path to change the outcome.
Republicans are increasingly pointing to a December deadline for Trump to exhaust his legal challenges. That’s when the states face a deadline to certify results and the Electoral College is set to cast its votes Dec. 14. It’s also about the time it took to resolve the 2000 election dispute between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.
Yet, unlike the Bush-Gore election, which was held up over hundreds of contested ballots in one state, Florida, Trump’s team is challenging the outcome in several states with tens of thousands of ballots. Trump would need to produce ample evidence of impropriety to undo Biden’s lead, which appears unlikely.
During a closed-door lunch, Vice President Mike Pence told Senate Republicans about the legal strategy. Sen John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the conversation lasted about five minutes.
McConnell insisted later, “I don’t think we’re going to have an uninterrupted transition.”
Trump’s refusal to concede has led the General Services Administration to hold off on formally beginning the Biden transition, which could hamper the new administration.
Democrats, meanwhile, are pushing ahead in preparation for the Biden administration, particularly the president-elect’s immediate rollout of a sweeping COVID-19 plan.
On Tuesday, Schumer invited Biden adviser Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general, to a private briefing with senators to discuss Biden’s plan to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
Democratic senators said it was like a cloud lifting as they heard plans for a comprehensive approach for bringing the COVID-19 crisis under control.
“Congress should pursue a strong, comprehensive COVID relief bill,” Schumer said. He warned McConnell and Republicans not to block or settle for a more modest effort. “We cannot pretend this pandemic is nearly over,” he said.
Trump and his GOP allies haven’t offered evidence of election fraud, and their legal challenges have largely been rejected by the courts.
Still, Republicans are unwilling to stray from Trump, even in defeat, afraid of angering his most ardent supporters ahead of the Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia that will determine majority control of the Senate. Two Republican senators are struggling to keep their seats against Democratic challengers.
McConnell noted the potential turmoil during the transition in praising ousted Defense Secretary Mark Esper, whom Trump fired Monday.
McConnell said he expects to speak “soon” with new acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller about threats from terrorists or foreign adversaries ”who may seek to exploit a period of uncertainty.”
He said the times call for “continued sober and steady leadership” at the Pentagon.
Both McConnell and Schumer were re-elected as party leaders during private Senate elections Tuesday, but it’s unclear whether McConnell will retain his role as majority leader or cede it to Schumer as the final races for the U.S. Senate play out.
Republicans on Tuesday pushed their lead in the chamber to 49-48 after Democrat Cal Cunningham conceded in his attempt to unseat Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina but have so far failed to lock down the seats needed to secure their majority.
The races for the two seats in Georgia heading to a Jan. 5 runoff are swiftly becoming a showdown over control of the chamber. The state is closely divided, with Democrats making gains on Republicans, fueled by a surge of new voters. But no Democrat has been elected senator in the state in some 20 years.
One other race in Alaska remains too early to call. Even if Republicans secure that race where ballots are still being counted, they would still fall short of the 51 seats needed for a majority.
The vice president casts tie-breaking votes in the Senate, meaning that power would fall to Kamala Harris starting Jan. 20 after she and Biden are sworn in. That also means 50 seats for Democrats in the Senate would result in chamber control.
The stakes are high for all sides in Georgia, with strategists expecting an eye-popping $500 million could be spent in the weeks ahead.
Mike Zientek served in the Gulf War in 1990-91. Many years later, he served in the Iraq War.
He didn’t see combat either time, but after returning from his tour in Iraq, he began feeling symptoms of stress, including terrible dreams.
He believes he also suffers from Gulf War syndrome, a condition that hasn’t been proved but which many veterans of the war believe they have.
Zientek agreed to tell his story on the occasion of Veterans Day 2020.
He is matter-of-fact when talking about his experiences, some of which continue to affect him.
Zientek was a member of the 826th Ordnance Company, a Reserve unit in Madison, when he went to war the first time.
“When we went over there in November (1990), we knew we were just going to beat the hell out of them. It was going to be a one-sided fight,” he recalled.
Zientek was a squad leader in a company stationed in the Arabian Desert. The soldiers’ job was to load convoys of trucks with ammunition for troops who were fighting Saddam Hussein’s army, which had invaded Kuwait.
“We would load them with tons of rocket bullets, grenades, missiles, mines, any type of ammunition,” Zientek recalled.
As the Iraqi troops fled, U.S. troops followed into Iraq and captured a stockpile of sarin and mustard gas and other chemical-war agents.
The U.S. and others had supplied the poisons to Iraq to fight the Iran-Iraq War in 1980-88. Officials decided to burn the stockpile, sending the poisons into the air, and everyone in the region breathed them in, Zientek said.
Chemical-weapons alarms went off around his camp and elsewhere in Saudi Arabia, but troops were told it was only a drill, said Zientek, who believes there was a cover-up.
The destruction of stockpiles has been documented, and some troops close to the stockpiles are known to have been affected, but so far, there is no solid proof that many thousands of troops were affected as Zientek and many others believe.
Zientek has skin problems and has suffered from chronic migraines since 1999.
Some with these experiences compare them to how U.S. troops suffered from the Agent Orange defoliant for years after the Vietnam War.
Zientek believes his two daughters, who were conceived after he returned home, had developmental delays as a result of his exposure.
Both daughters got early-childhood special-education help when the family lived in Stoughton, and a teacher there told him that other Gulf War veterans had children with similar problems, Zientek said.
Both daughters, now adults, attended college and are doing fine, he said.
Zientek gets treatment at the Veterans Administration in Madison, which he says does a good job, generally. But when he suggests that he has Gulf War syndrome, doctors and nurses either haven’t heard of it or believe it’s all in his head, he said.
The VA acknowledges Gulf War illness and says it could affect up to a third of those who served in the war. But the VA calls GWI “a group of unexplained or ill-defined chronic symptoms” and says it’s interested in further study.
Zientek is one of many who keep in touch in Facebook groups to discuss GWI.
Zientek left the Reserves and joined the state National Guard after returning from the Gulf. He was assigned to a heavy-transport unit in Beloit.
In 2008, his unit was called up and retrained to run a detention camp in Iraq. Members deployed in 2009 and were assigned to Camp Cropper, located near Baghdad International Airport.
The soldier-guards had to be careful to separate detainees who were of different nationalities and religious beliefs. Some were spreading ideology that led to the ISIS insurgency in Syria and Iraq. Guards searched for weapons and other contraband.
After he returned from Iraq in 2010, Zientek had nightmares but strangely not about his tour in Iraq. They were about an experience 20 years earlier during the Gulf War.
The dreams were about the time when his unit was allowed a sightseeing tour that included the so-called Highway of Death in Kuwait in 1991.
Iraqi troops used the highway to retreat into Iraq, and allied aircraft attacked them. Hundreds of vehicles were abandoned and then pushed off the highway.
Zientek and fellow soldiers were there after the battles had ended. They looked for souvenirs among the wreckage.
But in one of his dreams, Zientek is leading a squad through a building along the highway, and one soldier is killed because Zientek was not cautious enough. It would be a horrible fact to live with, but it never happened.
Zientek talks weekly with buddies from that time, and they tell him they were never in a building like the one he described.
Counselors tell Zientek that such dreams can be the result of trauma that the brain doesn’t know how to process.
Zientek continued his Army career after returning from Iraq, including stints as a recruiter in Janesville, Beloit, Elkhorn and at UW-Whitewater.
He retired as a staff sergeant and is senior vice commander with the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1621 in Janesville.
Zientek said anyone who joins the military gives up something and is never the same, for good or bad.
Veterans can lose their innocence in the service, by seeing tragic things happening to people or heroism that is rare in civilian life, he said.
“When you come home, whether from war or just from your time on active duty or in the Guard or Reserves, a lot of veterans, they just want to go back to being a normal person. They want to go back to how they were before they served, and a veteran is never able to do that,” Zientek said. “There’s a loss of innocence.”
Civilians might avoid asking about a veteran’s experiences, and veterans can be reticent about them, Zientek said, but there are civilians who can understand, and veterans should not assume civilians don’t care.
“Even though a civilian might not understand what I went through at Camp Cropper or in Saudi Arabia, they can still intellectually get it, that it was difficult and that it was hot and miserable.”