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At large Wisconsin rally, President Trump downplays pandemic as state’s coronavirus cases hit record levels

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville, Wisconsin, on Oct. 17, 2020.
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville, Wisconsin, on Oct. 17, 2020. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

JANESVILLE, WIS. — Just five days removed from his White House coronavirus quarantine, President Donald Trump held a large rally Saturday in Wisconsin, where he downplayed the pandemic in a state suffering from a record-high surge in COVID-19 cases.

At the top of a meandering 93-minute speech, Trump criticized Gov. Tony Evers for holding Wisconsin back amid the pandemic — despite the fact Republicans already had successfully overturned several of the Democratic governor’s public health measures.

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“We’re doing great, we’re doing really well. I wish you’d have a Republican governor because frankly, you got to open your state up," Trump said. “You got to open it up."

The president’s comments on COVID-19 ignored the fact that cases are on the rise in more than 40 states — with an especially sharp increase in Wisconsin.

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“We’re rounding the corner," Trump said. “We have unbelievable vaccines coming out real soon.”

The rally at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville packed several thousand people into a setting where social distancing was not an option and only about one-third of his supporters wore a mask. The event also required attendees to ride crowded shuttle buses to and from a parking lot a couple of miles away.

Trump originally had planned to hold the Janesville rally two weeks ago, but instead spent the day hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center infected with COVID-19. Two weeks later, Trump finally arrived in Wisconsin with polls showing him falling further behind in the state, trailing by as many as 10 points since his diagnosis stunned the nation.

The president credited an experimental Regeneron antibody cocktail not available to most COVID-19 patients as the reason for his quick recovery from the virus.

“I wasn’t feeling so good. I wasn’t feeling like your president has to feel. I wasn’t feeling like Superman,” Trump said. “There’s a drug, it’s Regeneron, it’s a transfusion. And all I know is the next morning I felt stronger than I ever have; I wanted to get out there.”

Trump touched down in Air Force One after Wisconsin set a state record on Thursday and again on Friday for new COVID-19 cases, taxing hospital capacity to the point where some patients were being treated in hallways and leading Evers to open an emergency field hospital at the state fairgrounds in suburban Milwaukee.

The rally only reinforced the wide divide between Democrats and Republicans on how best to approach the pandemic. Trump’s supporters insist the coronavirus should not bring life — and the high-energy rallies — to a halt while the president’s staunch critics accuse him of recklessly endangering Wisconsinites' lives.

Jonathan Spate, Victoria Graham, Julia Wall and Paul Bare traveled together from Maranatha Baptist College in Watertown, Wisconsin, for the rally. The four college students, none of whom wore masks, held up a Trump flag that read, “Make liberals cry again" and rejected the notion that president shouldn’t hold large rallies because of the pandemic.

“It’s our freedom to do this. If we didn’t feel safe or felt our health was compromised, then it might be best to sit at home and watch,” said Graham, 20. “I think it’s a lot of personal responsibility and being smart about it. We can’t throw caution to the wind, but we also can’t shut everything down.”

Julia Wall, 22, from left, Paul Bare, 22, Jonathan Spate, 20, and Victoria Graham, 20, all of Watertown, Wisconsin, during a campaign rally for President Donald Trump at Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville, Wisconsin, on Oct. 17, 2020.
Julia Wall, 22, from left, Paul Bare, 22, Jonathan Spate, 20, and Victoria Graham, 20, all of Watertown, Wisconsin, during a campaign rally for President Donald Trump at Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville, Wisconsin, on Oct. 17, 2020. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

When it comes to masks, all four said that should be an individual decision and not up to Trump to ask people to do so.

“All you can do is tell people what the benefits are and the risks are and leave it up to them to decide,” said Bare, 22. “It comes down to respect. Do you as an individual want to show respect to those who believe masks are important and need to be worn all the time? Or are you in an area where people don’t think masks are all that important?”

To show her patriotism, Gina Lechner dressed for the rally in a head-to-toe bald eagle costume complete with a yellow beak atop her head. Lechner said she takes the pandemic seriously, noting that her husband came down with COVID-19 and had to quarantine in their home for several days as he battled a fever and fatigue.

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Gina Lechner, 37, of Oregon, Wisconsin, during a campaign rally for President Donald Trump at Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville, Wisconsin, on Oct. 17, 2020.
Gina Lechner, 37, of Oregon, Wisconsin, during a campaign rally for President Donald Trump at Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville, Wisconsin, on Oct. 17, 2020. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

Wearing a Trump mask, Lechner said she wears a face covering as an example to her daughter and acknowledged Trump could do a better job setting an example by asking people to wear masks instead of making light of the issue. Still, she said those who thought the rally should be scrapped because of Wisconsin’s spike in coronavirus cases were overreacting.

“This is not any different than going to the grocery store or other places. I think we have the right to come here and express how we feel,” said Lechner, 37, who lives in Oregon, Wisconsin. “Just because it’s a super big event doesn’t mean we can’t use common sense and safety. We’re outside. You can get this at a big event or a small event, at the laundromat, at a restaurant or your parent’s house. It’s a choice to go anywhere with this virus.”

Word of Trump coming to town was enough to motivate Jen Kuhnle, a Janesville nurse, recently to take time out of her brief lunch break to pick up a yard sign for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Asked what brought her by the campaign office in Janesville’s riverfront downtown, Kuhnle replied with one word: "aggression.”

“Coming here and doing this rally is just crazy. This is like a power trip for him — he has to be in front of people cheering him,” said Kuhnle, 40, who has not had to treat coronavirus patients but has many friends who have. “Asking people to wear a mask is very easy, but he won’t do it."

‘A superspreader event'

Over the previous seven days ending Friday, Wisconsin had tallied 21,655 new COVID-19 cases, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That trailed only Texas (28,014) and California (23,601) — two states that have roughly six times and eight times the population of Wisconsin, respectively.

On a cases per capita basis, Wisconsin’s caseload fell behind only North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. The state also has four of the top seven coronavirus hot spots in the country — Wausau, Marshfield, Neenah and Appleton — according to the Dartmouth Institute, which maps COVID-19 cases by regional hospital districts.

Health care workers welcome residents to a COVID-19 testing site in Janesville, Wisconsin, on Oct. 14, 2020.
Health care workers welcome residents to a COVID-19 testing site in Janesville, Wisconsin, on Oct. 14, 2020. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

The pandemic has only intensified Wisconsin’s bitter political divide as Republicans and some business interests have challenged Democratic Gov. Evers' public health measures. The state’s Supreme Court struck down Evers' initial stay-at-home order earlier this year, and a judge last week temporarily put a hold on the governor’s order limiting capacity at bars and restaurants. Republicans also continue to challenge a statewide mask mandate, which was initially upheld in court.

“We are at a critical point in the battle against this virus,” Evers told reporters on Thursday. “Just because some folks out there want to see full bars and full hospitals doesn’t mean we have to follow their lead.”

By coming to Janesville, the governor said Trump would be “encouraging a superspreader event.”

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“It’s bringing a bunch of people together who aren’t wearing a mask,” he said. “Whether it’s Eric Trump, Vice President Pence or the president himself, they have control over that crowd. They can tell them, if you don’t wear a mask, you have to leave. ... They are unwilling to do that."

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Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt said that while Democrats have tried to make the pandemic a partisan issue, he noted that cases are on the rise in most of the country and in Europe.

“I can’t really explain it, but there’s a lot of people in Wisconsin who don’t want to wear a mask,” Hitt said. “And it’s not just in rural areas — it’s all over the state.”

Hitt stressed that attendees had their temperatures checked and were asked, though not required, to wear a mask. Asked why Trump couldn’t hold such an event virtually, Hitt said coming to the state draws more attention.

“The president and the whole team view these rallies as very important," Hitt said. “It’s very important to keep his base engaged and energized.”

'It’s already here’

Four years ago, Trump won Wisconsin by less than 1 percentage point over Hillary Clinton, who never campaigned in the state. A new New York Times/Siena poll released last week found Trump trailing Biden by 10 points — double the 5-point lead the same poll found last month. The recent polling average in the state has Biden with a 6-point lead.

The survey, which was conducted entirely after the first presidential debate and Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis, found voters saying by a 2-to-1 margin that Trump had not taken the proper precautions against the pandemic. Wisconsin Republicans dismissed the survey as from out-of-state pollsters and stressed that no poll found Trump ahead before his surprise win over Clinton in the state four years ago.

“We win Wisconsin, we win the whole ballgame,” Trump told the crowd. “What the hell do you think I’m doing here on a freezing night with 45 (mph) winds? Think I’m doing this for my health? I’m not doing this for my health."

Fans of President Donald Trump cheer as he speaks during a campaign rally at Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville, Wisconsin, on Oct. 17, 2020.
Fans of President Donald Trump cheer as he speaks during a campaign rally at Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville, Wisconsin, on Oct. 17, 2020. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

Janesville is in Rock County, where Trump won 41% of the vote to 51% for Clinton. That marked a dramatic dropoff from 2008 and 2012 when Barack Obama won more than 60% in the county, which explains why Trump declared Saturday night, “this is a Democratic area, but I do quite well here.”

Rock County Democratic Party Chairwoman Tracy Thompson said she thought Biden would fare much better in 2020, citing how unpopular Clinton was, the fact that she did not campaign in the state and stressing how voters now know what they’re getting with Trump — especially with his handling of the pandemic.

Trump’s decision to hold a rally while the the National Guard has conducted emergency COVID-19 testing at a Janesville softball complex all week only hammers home the point, she said. Rock County had single-day spikes in COVID-19 test positivity rates of nearly 91% 83% on two separate days last week.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to mitigate the spread and protect people, and the president has this continued persistence to come into our community and put people at risk," Thompson said. “It’s really disheartening and disappointing.”

Janesville is the home turf of former Republican U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who did not attend Saturday’s rally. Ryan reluctantly endorsed Trump in 2016 only to later condemn Trump’s comments on an “Access Hollywood” tape bragging in vulgar terms about groping women.

In March 2019, Ryan tweeted that he thought the country was better off under Trump and that he would get reelected, but in a book released a few months later, Ryan revealed he retired from Congress in 2018 to avoid two more years of a Trump presidency and said the president “didn’t know anything about government." That drew a tweet storm and a rebuke from the president who called Ryan “a baby.”

While historically part of a GOP-represented congressional seat in the southeastern corner of the state, Janesville itself is a solidly Democratic blue-collar union town.

Cecil Piper, of Janesville, Wisconsin, talks outside the Democratic headquarters in downtown Janesville on Oct. 14, 2020.
Cecil Piper, of Janesville, Wisconsin, talks outside the Democratic headquarters in downtown Janesville on Oct. 14, 2020. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

Hence the steady stream of people coming into the Democratic HQ in downtown Janesville recently, including retired machinist Cecil Piper, who needed a replacement for his homemade plywood Biden sign that had suffered water damage.

“I’d like to go out to the airport and protest Trump, tell him to get on his damn plane and get the hell out of here,” said Piper, wearing a bright yellow Green Bay Packers shirt and holding a pair of Biden campaign buttons. “When he knew about COVID in February, he could have ramped up the protective equipment, the masks, the gowns, the ventilators and all that. He had the time, and he sat on his hands and didn’t do a damn thing. He needs to go.”

Piper particularly resented how Trump has touted he beat the virus and told Americans not to let it control their lives — only after he received the top-notch medical care at Walter Reed.

“Easy for him to say,” Piper snorted. “He got the stuff none of us would ever get.”

Down the street at the Janesville Moose Lodge, Kate Dombeck pulled supplies out of a cramped storage closet for bingo night. The lodge, which has roughly 500 members mostly over the age of 60, used to draw more than 100 people for bingo, but since the pandemic took hold, they’re lucky to get 20.

“Trump should just stay the hell away. He’s still probably got the virus, and he doesn’t need to do his superspreading around here like he was doing at the White House,” said Dombeck, 30, who voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson in 2016, will vote for Biden this year and isn’t discussing politics with her Trump-backing parents.

“Trump has no morals. He has handled the pandemic like an imbecile," she said. "He ignored it for so long, and when he tested positive my first thought was, ‘Deny it now.’”

Undecided voter Frank McNamer, of Janesville, Wisconsin, talks inside the Moose Lodge in downtown Janesville on Oct. 14, 2020.
Undecided voter Frank McNamer, of Janesville, Wisconsin, talks inside the Moose Lodge in downtown Janesville on Oct. 14, 2020. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

Frank McNamer, 70, is retired and helps out at the Janesville Moose Lodge. He said Trump could have handled the pandemic better, but remains undecided on how he’ll vote after backing Clinton four years ago. On one hand, McNamer said, it’s important to keep continuity in the White House during a pandemic and he thinks Trump did a good job with the economy before it struck. On the other, he thinks Biden would look out more for the working class.

One thing McNamer wasn’t undecided on is whether Trump should hold his rally.

“He’s not bringing COVID in all by himself. It’s already here,” said McNamer, wearing a Moose mask. If they want to run down there, without a mask on, go for it. It’s your a-- on the line, not mine.”

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Seven miles south of the airport where Trump held his rally, farmer Gary Hahn has a giant 10-by-15-foot Trump Pence flag flying from the top of his grain bins. The banner is so large that it’s visible from nearby Interstate 90.

Gary Hahn, owner of G&M Acres, is proud to fly a gigantic flag of Trump Pence on top of his grain elevator, just south of Janesville, Wisconsin, on Oct. 14, 2020.
Gary Hahn, owner of G&M Acres, is proud to fly a gigantic flag of Trump Pence on top of his grain elevator, just south of Janesville, Wisconsin, on Oct. 14, 2020. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

Hahn signed up for tickets to the rally, but couldn’t go — not because he’s diabetic and is at higher risk for serious illness if he contracts COVID-19, but because there was too much corn to be harvested from his 3,400 acres to spend an entire Saturday at a campaign rally.

“I would love to go. ... Nobody puts a gun to anybody’s head making them go to the rallies. If you want to go, COVID or not, this is still a free country, go for it, buddy," said Hahn, who with his wife, Michelle, owns G&M Acres farm just over the Illinois border. "We’ve got friends since March who hardly have been 5 miles from home, scared to death, wear a mask all the time, don’t let anyone in the door unless it’s family. I’m not going to ride your butt and say you’re an idiot, but I’m not gonna live that way.”

Twitter @BillRuthhart

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