This graph shows the daily increase in positive COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin
Daily growth in positive cases of COVID-19 as reported by the Wisconsin Dept. of Health Services.

Republican lawmakers say rural areas safe to reopen because of low virus numbers, hurting economy

Republican lawmakers took their advocacy for a regional reopening of Wisconsin businesses to the public Thursday, with one northern Wisconsin lawmaker suggesting rural regions serve as “pilots” to see how reopening would affect the rest of the state.

“We’re not going to be able to test five- and-a-half million people before we open the state,” said Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, adding that rural areas like the district she represents could start to reopen businesses as a pilot project for the rest of the state.

Bernier was among several lawmakers at a press event in Chippewa Falls. Other events were held by Republican lawmakers in Appleton and Wausau. 

The idea of opening businesses in portions of the state where the number of COVID-19 cases have been fewer in number compared to urban areas like Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay, has been an issue of debate since Gov. Tony Evers’ administration extended the safer-at-home order from April 24 to May 26.

Republican lawmakers filed a suit to block the extension with the Wisconsin Supreme Court April 21. The court heard oral arguments Tuesday. A ruling could be made anytime. 

In contrast to the regional approach, Evers has set forth criteria that needs to be met prior to the entire state reopening at once. So far, only two of the six criteria have been met, according to Evers. Rural areas have fewer ICU beds, which are typically needed to treat coronavirus patients, and a larger percentage of their populations are elderly. 

There is no disagreement between the political parties that the virus is having a devastating effect on the economy. 

The virus is impacting employment and the overall economic climate in Wisconsin and across the country. In Wisconsin, half a million people have filed for unemployment. On Wednesday, the state Legislative Fiscal Bureau released a memo stating state tax collections were done $870 million in April to roughly $1.1 billion compared to Apri 2019. 

“My heart truly, truly goes out to all small businesses, and all businesses throughout the state,” said Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer. 

Bloomer is in Chippewa County. The county has had 27 positive COVID-19 cases

To date, there are more than 9,200 coronavirus cases, 1,700 hospitalizations, and nearly 375 deaths in Wisconsin, according to the state Department of Health Services

According to the Wisconsin Hospital Association dashboard, northwest and western Wisconsin have had roughly 3 percent of the state’s total cases and there are areas that continue to have few if any people hospitalized with COVID-19.

“If you look at the data, we don’t have issues that we have in some other areas of the state,” said Rep. Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi. 

Mondavi, located in Buffalo County, has had 5 COVID-19 cases and one death from the virus. 

The state’s rural areas have lagged in testing due to a national shortage of test kits. That situation has changed in recent weeks, with state health officials now saying there are enough tests for people to get tested at their doctor’s office if they are experiencing symptoms. 

The Wisconsin National Guard also has deployed 25 teams to operate drive-thru testing sites across the state, with an emphasis on western and northwestern Wisconsin to determine how the virus has impacted those areas.