Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, works at the Brunswick Town Hall during Tuesday’s election. Smith and others said they worry holding an in-person election in Wisconsin will lead to an unnecessary spike in COVID-19 cases in upcoming weeks. (Photo provided) Smith
Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, works at the Brunswick Town Hall during Tuesday’s election. Smith and others said they worry holding an in-person election in Wisconsin will lead to an unnecessary spike in COVID-19 cases in upcoming weeks. (Photo provided)

Election-related cases would come at around same time as peak in Wisconsin

As Patty Schachtner worked at the Star Prairie Town Hall Tuesday to help oversee the election process, she couldn’t help but worry that in-person voting will lead to an outbreak of more coronavirus cases.

Schachtner, like other election workers at her St. Croix County voting location, donned a mask and gloves to stop the spread of COVID-19. Some voters wore similar protective gear. 

But even with those precautions, the Democratic state senator who lives in rural Somerset, said she is concerned Tuesday’s election will prompt an outburst of new COVID-19 cases in upcoming weeks.

At a time when a safer-at-home order is in place, closing non-essentials businesses and encouraging people to work and stay at home, hundreds of thousands of people ventured out to vote. 

“It’s inevitable that we are going to have more cases because of this,” Schachtner said Thursday. “We know there are people out there with the virus, people who just haven’t been tested. We know there are carriers (of the virus) who are not symptomatic, and they’re coming into contact with others at all of these polling places. What is the impact of having this election going to be? I don’t know, but I worry it’s going to mean a lot more (COVID-19) cases. 

Voters who may have gotten infected by going out to vote will likely not show symptoms for two weeks. 

Schachtner said this is concerning to her, as this is the same time the virus is expected to peak in Wisconsin. 

“We’re already projected to have a lot of cases at that time (late April), and these new cases would add to that at just the wrong time,” she said. 

Schachtner isn’t alone in her concern that Tuesday’s election in Wisconsin is likely to boost COVID-19 cases.

National media and residents across the state have criticized allowing in-person voting at a time when people are told to remain home and restrict interaction with others, an effort to try to halt the growing spread of the virus.

As of Thursday, the state Department of Health Services reported 2,885 positive cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin and 111 deaths attributed to the virus.  

On Monday Democratic Gov. Tony Evers declared the election would be delayed until June 9 because of public health concerns. However, later that day the state Supreme Court overturned that action, ruling that the election would take place on Tuesday. 

Those actions meant voters would congregate at polling places across the state. In some cities, most notably Milwaukee, the number of voting sites was reduced, and actions to protect public safety — such as plexiglas barriers, the wearing of masks and gloves, and disposable voting pens — were put in place at those locations. 

Despite those efforts, voters at some polling places were possibly exposed to COVID-19. In Milwaukee, where the number of voting locations was reduced from 182 to 5, people stood in long lines for hours, close together, before voting. 

Consolidation of voting sites in Milwaukee and other municipalities made social distancing extremely difficult, said Andrea Palm, state Department of Health Services secretary.

“In-person voting would, without question, increase the spread of COVID-19,” Palm said.

Like Schachtner, Sen. Jeff Smith, D-town of Brunswick, was a polling place worker during Tuesday’s election. The Brunswick town clerk took great precautions to ensure voter and worker safety there, he said.

Workers wore masks and gloves, there were plexiglass guards, allowing just two or three people in the voting area at once, and tape on the floor directing foot traffic to maintain social distancing.

But that doesn’t mean people didn’t have contact, Smith said. Outside of the Brunswick Town Hall, as many as a dozen people at a time congregated, failing to maintain social distancing, he said. 

“There is nothing you can do to prevent mingling outside,” Smith said. “All of the information is out there about social distancing, about the importance of doing that to prevent the spread of the virus. But there are always going to be people who don’t follow protocols.”

As at other Wisconsin polling sites, Ashland City Clerk Denise Oliphant also took protective measures to limit the spread of the virus. Despite those efforts she worries people at polling places may have contracted COVID-19.

“Any time you have people coming into contact with something contagious, you are likely to have some new cases,” she said. 

In addition to her job as a state legislator, Schachtner works as chief medical examiner for St. Croix County. Because of her profession, she is perhaps especially aware of how easily COVID-19 can spread from person to person, causing illness and even death, she said.

“It is very frustrating to see all of this unnecessary personal contact, knowing that this virus will spread,” she said, noting there are seven COVID-19 cases in St. Croix County. “We know the number of cases is going to keep growing for a while, and now I fear it will grow even more because of the election.”