Don’t Die For Me, Wisconsin

Screen shot of video segment on the reopening of bars in Wisconsin from WTMJ via CNN.

Let me tell you a story. It’s about my home state, but unfortunately it will ring true in many other parts of the nation, whether now or in the near future.

Wisconsin Republicans have never had a plan to keep citizens safe in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. That was clear when they forced me and thousands of others to choose between our health and participating in democracy in the state’s April 7 primary election.

Instead, they sued to block Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ desperate, last-minute attempts to avoid catastrophe. They were successful in their lawsuit, at the cost of creating considerable burden and risk for voters. Their overall mission was less successful, however. Daniel Kelly, the state Supreme Court justice Republican leaders were trying to reelect with a low-turnout election, went down to an ignominious double-digit loss.

The same playbook was in operation again this week, with better results for the GOP. The legislature sued to overturn the Evers administration’s extension of its original stay-at-home orders on the grounds that they were a regulatory rule, a technicality the heavily gerrymandered legislature had imposed in a lame-duck session to take away power from the incoming Evers administration. Despite clear law to the contrary, a majority of the state Supreme Court—including the same Dan Kelly—agreed with them, in a ruling so slipshod that it was initially unclear when it took effect.

That didn’t stop the Republican-dominated Tavern League of Wisconsin (a trade association for alcoholic beverage retailers) from immediately counseling its members that they could reopen. By the end of the night, at least some bars were packed, including one in West Allis that welcomed, sans face-mask, a local nurse. Wisconsin gonna Wisconsin, which is damn close to saying rummies gonna rummy. I’m just grateful that in our small city, only about half the bars downtown were open today, and most of those were not very full.

But that’s the way it’s going to go in Wisconsin for a while. Although the Supreme Court ruling tossed out the governor’s mandates, it left in place local restrictions. Places like Milwaukee and Madison continued stay-at-home policies, while other counties opened for business. Or something like that. The chains haven’t had time to react, leaving their dining rooms closed, while local establishments have begun to reopen. The big-box retailers still required masks and social distancing, while many mom-and-pop operations were either closed or only offering curbside pickup. As if someone had double-dog dared them to make things worse, legislative leaders opined that this confusing patchwork was just fine with them, and they saw no reason to offer guidance to local municipalities on how or when to reopen, despite local officials practically begging for that guidance.

Churches, meanwhile, were having none of it. The six ELCA (Lutheran) bishops of the state issued a joint statement criticizing the Supreme Court ruling. The Wisconsin Conference Minister of the United Church of Christ (UCC) advised his congregations to “stay the course.” Kerri Parker, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, pulled no punches in a press release titled, “Supreme Court Not The Highest Authority For Church Decisions On When To Gather:”

Today’s Supreme Court decision striking down ‘Safer at Home’ did not include the 6-day stay of the ruling requested by the Legislature. This creates conditions for confusion, chaos and increased anxiety among the general population. As a network of churches and faith leaders, we believe such conditions are antithetical to creating communities where all can thrive. Churches need not be guided nor rushed by this decision into a hasty choice to reopen for worship.

All of this might seem mostly an inconvenience, and in some ways, that’s all it is. Evers’ orders were set to expire in a little less than two weeks, and already some restrictions were being relaxed. The timetable has been moved up, quickly and chaotically.

But in that chaos lies the seeds of a terrible injustice. In order not to lose market share to competitors, there will be tremendous pressure for local businesses to reopen, despite the risk to their employees. My wife’s hair stylist is immune-compromised. A waitress we’ve grown close to at our favorite bar has multiple sclerosis. Neither can afford to refuse to work. Before you know it, they’ll both be back at the job, safe or not.

In turn, that puts people like my wife and me in a bind. Do we support the local businesses we’ve long had a commitment to and the people who rely on them for a paycheck? Or do we sensibly stay home and avoid for as long as we can possibly killing our friends and neighbors? These wouldn’t have been easy questions to answer even with an orderly plan for a gradual reopening of the economy, but the slapdash Supreme Court ruling didn’t make things any easier.

RR Reno, the editor of the Catholic paleo-con journal First Things, recently opined that wearing masks in public was part of a “fear-driven culture” and “enforced cowardice.” His tweets were so universally scorned he didn’t just delete them: he deleted his entire account.

The irony, of course, is that masks don’t protect their wearers. They protect others from the wearer, by preventing viral transmission through coughing or sneezing. But that hasn’t stopped Reno and thousands like him from deriding them, as though common courtesy had become some form of candy-ass political correctness gone horribly, horribly afraid.

What kind of weird looking-glass have we gone through to stand decency on its head like this? It’s as if conservatives want to spread pandemic to own the libs, as someone on my timeline wise-cracked. If you wear a mask to prevent others from getting sick, you’re a coward. If you come up with a plan to respond to a public health crisis, you’re an overreaching power-grabber. And for what? To prop up the same economy the president ran into the ground by dithering about how to face up to coronavirus? To give him the partisan division he so desperately wants for his re-election campaign? For the sheer nihilistic thrill of getting everybody killed?

Whatever the reason, I don’t have to play along, and neither do you. Not in Wisconsin, not in wherever you happen to be reading this.

This weekend, I’m going to go see my mom and give her a hug, before we start getting back to public life. Since I don’t have to go anywhere crowded, I’m not going to. Eventually, my wife and I will weaken and want to go to a restaurant, but maybe Tuesday for lunch, instead of dinner on Friday night. And for a long time, I’ll keep wearing the face mask our Bahai neighbor sewed for me. Gather at the bar, throw open all the businesses, call me a coward all you want. I’ll be damned if I let you force me to stop being kind to you, and more importantly, to the people who deserve the kindness.