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How The Political Divide In Wisconsin Is Affecting The State's COVID-19 Response

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Wisconsin, the pandemic hasn't changed much for some people. Many don't wear masks. They still gather with their friends to watch football games. Or they go to political rallies. Wisconsin Public Radio's Laurel White reports on how politics infected public health.

LAUREL WHITE, BYLINE: In Wisconsin, people are used to divided politics. Think back to 100,000 people swarming the state capitol to protest former Governor Scott Walker's crackdown on unions, Wisconsin senators fleeing the state to avoid a vote, perfunctory special sessions that adjourn after five seconds. And now, in 2020, it appears those divisions have split the state over how to respond to a global pandemic.

JASON WITOON: It's a lose-lose battle. And it's frustrating because it's not a political thing. It's, you know, the health of our state.

WHITE: That's Jason Witoon (ph), who lives in Appleton, which The New York Times rates as one of the top five cities nationwide for COVID cases per capita. Earlier this year, most of the cases were centered in the state's two biggest cities, Milwaukee and Madison. Now the hot spots are in rural communities. Kathy Frye (ph) lives in Richland Center in southwestern Wisconsin. Cases of COVID-19 in her county have increased by more than 500% since September 1.

KATHY FRYE: There's only one place to shop for groceries, and that's Walmart. And I see, probably, a third of the people in the last couple of visits that we've made there who are not wearing masks.

WHITE: President Trump carried her community in 2016. And she thinks her neighbors are being influenced by Republican politicians and how they talk about the virus. President Trump was in Janesville recently. He hosted a rally with thousands in attendance, many of them not wearing masks.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'm immune. And I got better fast. I got better fast. I can now jump into the audience and give you all a big kiss, the women and the men.

WHITE: Many Wisconsin Republicans embrace that kind of talk about COVID-19. Like the president, they mock people for wearing masks and question whether they even work. A state senator called a field hospital to treat COVID patients when hospitals here hit capacity a political stunt by Democratic Governor Tony Evers. Since March, the governor has been locked in a two-step with Wisconsin Republicans. Every time he issues a public health order, they sue to knock it down. This week, Evers blamed those lawsuits for Wisconsin's COVID spike.

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TONY EVERS: As compared to other states, those governors haven't been prevented from doing what they think is the right thing.

WHITE: After the Republican-controlled state legislature sued the governor over his stay-at-home order in May, the Supreme Court knocked it down. Now there are at least three additional lawsuits over orders requiring masks and limiting bar and restaurant capacity. Republican State Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, speaking on PBS Wisconsin, defended the strategy.

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JIM STEINEKE: We're focused on just making sure that the rule of law is upheld and making sure that, at the end of the day, that the governor is following the law. That's the most important thing to us.

WHITE: Republicans argue the governor has to work with the legislature to issue any statewide restrictions. Most don't approve of a statewide response, pushing it to the county level instead. Back in Appleton, that frustrates Jason Witoon. He wants a statewide response his governor can't provide. And he really wants his neighbors, even those who disagree with him politically, to at least accept that COVID-19 is real.

For NPR News, I'm Laurel White in Madison.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOMAK'S "FORCE FOR TRUTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.