Vaccines will be rolled out over the coming months, but in the meantime, cold weather, isolation, and already-strained public health infrastructure will converge in the state this winter.
By John McCracken
The first snow to stick to the ground in Green Bay this year arrived on November 15. It was a mild start to a mild winter (thus far) in the state, but foreshadowed a season of difficulty to come—and not just in terms of weather. By the next afternoon, the snow had melted completely off the roads and green grass poked through on front lawns. Two days later, there were ninety-two new deaths reported among confirmed COVID-19 cases, Wisconsin’s deadliest day that month.
During the final weeks of November, the state saw its highest recorded positive test rates and deaths since the pandemic began in March. Across Wisconsin, communities were advised to stay home, wear masks, and cancel their Thanksgiving gatherings. Officials warned we were entering new territory when it came to community spread. Throughout the summer, positive cases and deaths remained low. But, as the fall colors turned, cases began to rise. By early October, eight of the twenty worst outbreaks in the country were found in the state, five of them in Northeast Wisconsin alone.
For John Eich, director of the Wisconsin Office of Rural Health, the growing outbreaks have been a daily concern. Eich has been monitoring the virus since the beginning, and his office has funnelled existing federal grant money to numerous rural hospitals in its network. Eich has seen how the virus changes from county to county across the state, all dependent on the behaviors of each. “You might see a rural county with an outbreak or several,” Eich said, “and the county right next door won’t have any outbreaks at all.”
Hospitals across the state, like healthcare facilities across the country, are reaching their capacity for COVID-19 patients. Health experts told NPR that a county is in trouble when more than ten percent of adult inpatient beds are being used to treat COVID-19 patients, and “anything above twenty percent represents ‘extreme stress.’” As of this week, more than forty counties in Wisconsin were above the ten percent threshold; and nearly half of those forty had crossed above twenty percent.
Wisconsin winters are famously bitter affairs. Rounding the corner from Thanksgiving, case counts have been improving, and the first doses of a vaccine touched down in the state this month. But health officials have already expressed concern about a lack of testing capacity across the state, and the vaccine rollout will take months at best, meaning a coordinated public health response remains as important as ever. As a resident myself, I have begun thinking a lot about how the compounding factors of cold weather, isolation, and already-strained public health infrastructure will converge in the state this winter.
If you want to understand the current state of affairs in Wisconsin, one place to start is mid-August, when colleges across the state opened their doors for returning students. Eich said the decision to open campuses had an influence on rising cases, pointing to the fact that six of the eight cities with fast growing outbreaks in the fall all contained University of Wisconsin campuses. During the first weeks of mixed online and in-person classes, images of packed bars across the state began to flood social media—a precursor to rising cases in early winter and another instance of mass public action going against recommended public health guidance.
With winter moving everyone indoors, it is not only college campuses that are driving spread. Public health officials have said people gathering in close contact with members outside of their household—especially indoors, and without a mask and distancing—keeps community spread high. (Guidance from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services Division of Public Health is here.)
Mike Hastreiter is co-owner of a longstanding coffee shop in one of Green Bay’s designated main street areas, Kavarna Coffeehouse, which has been closed for dine-in service since May. The 1920s Broadway Street motor company-turned-java shop with a fading yellow façade has never faced such a lonely year. Hastreiter said when he sees evidence of packed bars he has mixed emotions. “From a community member perspective, it’s sickening, to be honest with you,” he told me.
As a business owner, Hastreiter understands the challenges that have led to bars, restaurants, and other businesses opening up for indoor services. He says he knows plenty of business owners who, if they go weeks or days with no business, might lose their store, their home, or any sort of personal savings they have. “It is not up to me to judge that person if they need to do whatever they can to save their business,” Hastreiter said. The blame, he said, lies squarely with Wisconsin’s continued political gridlock, and a resultant lack of a real systemic response.
Since the start of the pandemic, Democratic Governor Tony Evers and the Republican-controlled legislature have fought over how the state would respond. On March 25, less than two weeks after declaring the COVID-19 pandemic a public health emergency, Evers issued a “Safer at Home” order in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. This order urged residents to remain indoors and only travel for essential groceries, medicines, and other items. The order was initially meant to last until April 16, but was subsequently extended until May 26, and all schools were closed for for the remainder of the year.
Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, both Republicans, alongside the Wisconsin legislature, filed a lawsuit against Evers’s Safer at Home order, citing an alleged abuse of power. In a 4-3 decision, the state’s Supreme Court blocked the order and lifted restrictions less than two weeks before the order was planned to end. Brown County Executive
Since then, the government has failed to provide consistent, clear messaging for business owners, students, nurses, and other citizens. Evers has continued to attempt to manage the virus, instituting a mask mandate, which has since been extended through January of 2021, and attempting to limit the numbers of people gathering indoors in bars and restaurants. Both efforts have been challenged in the courts—the former by a bar industry lobbying group, and the latter by legislators. (A state court of appeals put the former on hold in October. A decision on the latter is still pending.) In November, Evers said the state requires an additional $466 million in federal funding to continue necessary testing and tracing activities.
While Evers has been met with lawsuits and backlash in the capitol at every turn, his opposition has not met at all. Wisconsin’s state legislature has not convened or passed legislation since April 15, and the Committee on Health and Human Services has not met since March 17. In October, the badger state was named one of the most inactive legislatures in the entire country since the beginning of the pandemic by the National Council of State Legislatures.
The back and forth—coupled with dangerous and misleading messaging from leaders at all levels of government, as well as Congress’s failure to pass a second round of federal investment to support residents, businesses, and states—has led to delayed responses, a fatigued and confused public, and ongoing frustration. “This won’t surprise anyone,” Eich said. “Our country would have done better in every state if we had consistent messaging from both parties.”
As the days get colder, the allure of passing the time with friends, family, and strangers indoors—watching the Packers climb their way to the top of the NFC North, drinking, or just eating popcorn and avoiding the cold—grows stronger for many residents. Eich says this is what sparks growing cases, citing Midwest touchstones from gas stations to churches, bars, and restaurants.“ These are important places for people to seek out community, and are therefore most often where recommendations aren’t being followed,” said Eich.
In Wisconsin, rural counties made up the majority of initial hotbeds. They are not often as dense as the state’s metro areas, like Madison, Milwaukee, or even Green Bay, Eich said, but density isn’t the only factor, and even non-metros, like the areas surrounding the Fox River, a north-flowing principal tributary to Lake Michigan at the bay of Green Bay, have sizable populations that are ripe for spreading COVID-19.
In Green Bay, where I live, drinking culture, sports culture, and general coronavirus fatigue create a particularly dangerous mix for coronavirus spread. “I think numbers are going to get worse and worse, specifically in our area,” Hastreiter said. “So that’s going to drive a lot of people away from going out, which for us is a good thing, but it’s also a bad thing.” Hastreiter, who was born and raised in Green Bay, describes the city’s winter as having a different type of cold. “We always expected this winter to be even more miserable than this year has been,” Hastreiter said.
It’s hard to go without community for extended periods of time, and the effects are particularly hard on those who rely on it to support their mental and behavioral health, including those in recovery programs. John Plageman is a social worker in Green Bay and works with the Brown County Alcohol and Drug Coalition for Change. He’s also in long-time recovery himself, and the creator of Section Yellow, a club for sober Packer fans. When the stay-at-home orders went into effect in March, “we immediately went to Zoom meetings that day,” Plageman said. “And we were ready for the interaction, because we need the socialization…the whole success of our sobriety is talking with other people.”
Drinking culture has intermixed with COVID-19 in a state that thrives on its massive sports following. A single Packers home game is estimated to bring $15 million in both direct and indirect spending to the city, while Wisconsin Badgers football faces a $60 million loss due to COVID-19. (Numerous bars in Green Bay declined to comment or could not be reached.)
Plageman is a season ticket holder who spends his winters in the frozen tundra of Lambeau field—section 126, row 20. He inherited his tickets from his great aunt and uncle, and told me his greatest joy is bringing first-time visitors to the green and gold. But this year he’s been watching games from his basement. “Green Bay and Wisconsin can be absolutely irresponsible when it comes to COVID measures,” he said. “I would not feel safe at Lambeau Field.”
The early weeks of December made for a timid start to winter this year. The nights have started earlier, and, here in Green Bay, the wind from the bay is brisker. Squirrels are fattening themselves from the remnants of jack o’ lanterns, and geese have started their noisy migration.
A light is growing at the end of the tunnel. Wisconsin is now deploying vaccinations to frontline health care workers and nursing home facilities. On December 16, twenty employees of Preva Health, a medical clinic group in Green Bay, received the first doses. That same day, Wisconsin Department of Health Secretary Andrea Palm addressed the week’s distribution of nearly fifty thousand doses of the COVID-19 vaccine with relief, but urged the public to remain vigilant while the rollout takes place. “Please remember that it will be months before [the] vaccine is widely available, so please continue to stay home as much as possible, wash your hands, wear a mask, and physically distance,” Palm said.
Ahead of the Packers’ nail-biting victory against the Detroit Lions on December 13, Green Bay received around an inch of slushy snow accompanied by a bitter chill. As the sun went down before 4:30 p.m., I made a quick masked visit to a local corner store and picked up a couple of six packs to bring back to the isolation of my home, continuing the routine of striving to keep a clean bubble while clinging to comforts.
I had in mind a line from my conversation with Plageman, in which he reflected on the upcoming holiday season, with students traveling home from college, continued bar gatherings, and families coming together, with a slight sorrow in his voice. Hope is on the way, but, he said, given the state’s failure to manage spread thus far, “January will be a very grief-stricken month.” ■
John McCracken is a freelance writer from Wisconsin. Find more of his work online here.
Cover image of the southern Wisconsin countryside by Anne Marie Peterson (creative commons).
Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month.