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The Morning Dispatch: Expect a Disaster in Today’s Wisconsin Election
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The Morning Dispatch: Expect a Disaster in Today’s Wisconsin Election

Plus, a closer look at Sweden’s handling of the coronavirus, and the impact of 'supercharged' unemployment benefits.

Happy Tuesday. We were about to put this newsletter to bed last night when we saw some incredible news. ESPN’s Jeff Passan is reporting that Major League Baseball is working on a plan that would allow the season to start—in Arizona—as early as May. We’re skeptical it could work, and there are many reasons it probably shouldn’t, but we can dream!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • As of Monday night, there are now 368,376 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States (a 9.1 percent increase from yesterday) and 10,989 deaths (a 14 percent increase from yesterday), according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, leading to a mortality rate among confirmed cases of 3 percent (the true mortality rate is difficult to calculate due to incomplete testing regimens). Of 1,917,095 coronavirus tests conducted in the United States, 18.8 percent have come back positive, per the COVID Tracking Project, a separate dataset with slightly different topline numbers.

  • Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order Monday postponing the state’s local elections and presidential primary due to coronavirus concerns, then the state Supreme Court overturned Evers’ order, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Wisconsin’s absentee ballot deadline could not be extended.

  • U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was moved to intensive care on Monday as his COVID-19 symptoms worsened.

  • Thomas B. Modly, the acting secretary of the Navy, apologized Monday night after a transcript of his address to the crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt leaked. The transcript revealed he had called former Capt. Brett Crozier either “too naive or too stupid” to command the ship after Crozier sent a letter to Navy leaders sharing his concerns about the lack of help he’d received to contain the threat of coronavirus on his ship.

  • The Masters has been rescheduled, with organizers targeting November 9-15 as the new week of competition.

  • After announcing the possibility last week, President Trump and Joe Biden had a phone call on Monday to discuss coronavirus response strategies. “He had suggestions, doesn’t mean I agree with those suggestions,” said Trump, who described the call as a “wonderful, warm conversation.”

Today’s Wisconsin Election: Expect a Disaster

Getting through this pandemic relatively unscathed is going to require nonpartisan cooperation from our state and federal governments the likes of which we’ve rarely seen in recent years. If today’s election in Wisconsin tells us anything, we’ve still got a long way to go.

Despite having the same strict social distancing regulations as most of the rest of the country, Wisconsin is going forward with its elections, including both the state’s Democratic presidential primary and—of more pressing concern to the state parties—a contest for a coveted seat on the state’s Supreme Court.

It’s all but certain to be a public health disaster. Volunteer poll workers, unsurprisingly loath to spend hours exposing themselves to a steady stream of potential virus carriers, have been cancelling en masse, forcing state officials to announce widespread closures of polling places. The scale of these is staggering: Rather than the ordinary 180-odd polling places that service Milwaukee, today’s election will have five. City residents will be faced with a miserable dilemma: Go out and risk getting sick and dramatically worsening the city’s coronavirus situation by mingling in enormous lines all day, or lose the opportunity to cast a vote.

The problem is compounded by the fact that swamped state officials have been unable to provide an absentee ballot to many, many people who requested one in a timely fashion. (In a Monday ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a lower court lacked authority to order Wisconsin to extend the period for absentee voting by six days in an attempt to resolve that problem.)   

How did it come to this? Through widespread failure to plan ahead and to cooperate among both Republican and Democratic state officials. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers insisted for weeks that there would be no need to change the state’s election protocols—only to turn around late last week, four days before the election, and ask lawmakers to pass a bill delaying the election for another month and moving the entire thing to mail-in ballots.

Republican lawmakers balked at this proposal, which they argued had been arrived at without any input from them and was completely unfeasible to roll out on such short notice. But then, not only did they decline to put forward any competing plan of their own—they made a big, theatrical point of not even considering any. On Saturday, Evers called the legislature in for an emergency session to consider how to avoid today’s looming disaster. Both houses of the legislature are controlled by Republicans; both houses gaveled in and gaveled out within literal seconds.

These GOP tactics have riled even many state allies. “They have not proposed any changes, and they have resisted any changes,” James Widgerson, who runs the conservative blog RightWisconsin, told The Dispatch. “If they had wanted to consider changes when Evers called them into a special session on Saturday, there was nothing to prevent them from coming up with their own solution at the time. And instead, all they did was they criticized Evers, they criticized the city of Milwaukee for not getting city employees to man the polls … So they have not been on the side of any solution either.”

On Monday, Evers went for the Hail Mary play: Declaring the election postponed by executive order, which he unquestionably lacked the legal authority to do. Republicans promptly sued, and the state Supreme Court promptly slapped the order down. The result: The election goes forward as scheduled. 

How Increased Unemployment Benefits Could Shape the Economy Over the Next Few Months

When a handful of Republican senators announced their concern with a provision in the $2 trillion CARES Act that would boost unemployment benefits by $600 a week, they were criticized as being cold and calculating in the middle of an economic crisis. While some of their apprehension may have been overblown (as evidenced by their unanimous decision to vote for the landmark legislation anyways), Congress’ decision to temporarily pay some Americans more to go on unemployment than they’d make by working could have significant effects.

In a piece for the site, Declan did some reporting on how things have played out in the two weeks since H.R.748 was signed into law. Some highlights below.

Who were these Republican senators raising concerns?

Sens. Ben Sasse, Tim Scott, Lindsey Graham, Rick Scott, and Ted Cruz.

What were their concerns with the increased unemployment insurance? Don’t we want people to be staying home from work anyways?

Yes, but not everyone. Our comatose economy’s sheltered existence is currently being propped up by a small subset of workers—health care professionals, truck drivers, grocery store cashiers—and would further implode if they decided to stay on the sidelines too, though there’s thankfully little evidence of that yet. Plus, the eventual recovery—whenever it comes—will inevitably take much much longer if workers are completely untethered from their places of employment.

“Workers who lost their jobs should get 100 percent of their pay with generous unemployment benefits during this emergency,” Sen. Ben Sasse told The Dispatch. “But Washington shouldn’t incentivize unemployment when we’re on the brink of economic meltdown. We ought to be celebrating the dignity of work—the heroes driving trucks, stocking shelves, or delivering medicine. Those jobs can’t be done from a laptop at the kitchen table, but those jobs are keeping this country alive.”

Where did the $600 per week come from?

While Sasse et al. initially referred to the figure as a “drafting error,” it wasn’t. Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Michael Bennet fought hard for its inclusion.

“We’re doing everything we can to get out ahead of what’s going to be a severe economic crisis, and step one is securing the most significant expansion of unemployment insurance in history,” Wyden—who had wanted the changes to be made permanent—said in a statement. “This is just one part of the overall effort to get through this oncoming crisis, but it will help millions of Americans stay in their homes and put food on the table.”

As for the $600 number itself, different states cap weekly unemployment benefits at different amounts. Under normal circumstances, Congress could have hammered out specific thresholds for each state to account for these variations. But time was of the essence.

“We wanted to have enhanced unemployment insurance,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told reporters at a press briefing. “Most of these state systems have technology that’s 30 years old or older. So, if we had the ability to customize this with much more specifics, we would have. This was the only way we could assure that the states could get money out quickly in a fair way, so we used $600 across the board. And I don’t think it will create incentives. Most Americans, what they want, they want to keep their jobs.”

What kind of workers does this affect?

Depending on the state, unemployed workers under the CARES Act can receive around up to just over $1,000 per week. So any currently unemployed worker set to make less than that rejoining the workforce could theoretically see a bump in income (until the program expires at the end of July) by remaining on the sidelines.

For example, Jake Hanson—a department head at a Hobby Lobby in the Dallas/Fort Worth area—was furloughed after the arts and craft chain decided (belatedly) to close all its stores in the face of the coronavirus threat. The father of three is deciding what to do next.

“As I look at it, I’m thinking like, ‘Okay, I can try to get a job—there’s no guarantees—I can try to get a job at Home Depot, make $16, $17 an hour,’” he told The Dispatch in an interview on Monday morning, after unsuccessfully trying to pin down a Home Depot store manager. “Then I started looking at the unemployment benefits. My last paycheck for Hobby Lobby for two weeks was about $1,000. And I’m looking at the stimulus plus unemployment, all this. And it’s almost $1,000 a week if my calculations are right. So, I’m getting a pay raise by being unemployed, if everything comes through like I expect it to.”

Hanson described himself as a “pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps” kind of guy. “I want to be a responsible person, I’m a hardworking person, and want to do my part to take care of my family,” he said. But “the incentive—or the pull for me is strong to just say, ‘Okay, I’m going to take a nice paycheck, it’s double what I’ve been making the past few weeks.’”

Swedish Fish(y)

In the age of COVID-19, governments are being put to the test—forced to balance the lives of their constituents with the economic consequences of mandatory stay-at-home orders while also being asked to predict the contours of a never-before-seen virus. But at the same time, the worldwide pandemic offers a rare opportunity to run a worldwide experiment, however unwelcome—comparing responses and outcomes in as much of a controlled setting as the real world can ever offer. 

Thus enters Sweden. Two headlines over the weekend caught our attention. “Did Sweden get its coronavirus strategy horribly wrong?” and “Has Sweden Found the Right Solution to the Coronavirus?” published within hours of each other.

Sweden has, in many ways, taken the road less traveled, choosing to ban gatherings of more than 50 people but leaving open schools, bars, restaurants, and stores while most European countries have banned nearly all potentially communal activities. The United Kingdom, for instance, having flirted with a less restrictive response, has now largely shut down, with prohibitions even on sunbathing. London and Stockholm have similar population density (5,600 people per kilometer vs 5,200 per kilometer), but despite this, the Swedish death toll is just under 500 and the U.K.’s is well over 5,000 and Prime Minister Boris Johnson is himself in intensive care. Yes, the U.K. has 66 million people and Sweden just 10 million, but the lower fatality rate (50 per million Swedes, 82 per million Brits) despite the relaxed rules has left many in the Western world wondering whether the Swedes know something the rest of us don’t. 

But as Charles Murray is fond of saying in an entirely different context, “almost any system of government will work for a while if you’re governing Swedes.”

So what is the evidence that Sweden has gotten it right while the rest of us haven’t worn pants in three weeks? The theory goes something like this: “By not requiring social isolation, Sweden’s young people spread the virus, mostly asymptomatically. … They will generate protective antibodies that make it harder and harder for [COVID-19] to reach and infect the frail and elderly who have serious underlying conditions.” This theory of herd immunity was also “adopted by the UK and the Netherlands before projected soaring death numbers prompted those countries to change course.”

But success, in this case, is all in the eye of the beholder. Sweden’s death toll is greater than the totals of Denmark, Norway, and Finland, which all instituted much more stringent measures. And per capita, it doesn’t do any better: If Sweden’s death toll per million inhabitants is 50, Denmark’s is 33, Norway’s is 14 and Finland’s is just 5 per million.

Asked last week whether these numbers and the rising numbers of cases at nursing homes was a sign that the strategy wasn’t working, the prime minister responded, “I don’t think it is a sign of that. This is what things look like around Europe. We have said all along that things will get worse before they get better.”

And what about our own 50-state experiment? Currently, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Arkansas, and Nebraska are the only remaining states without any stay-at-home orders in place.

Worth Your Time

  • In The New Yorker, Victor Zapana Jr., has written a touching and heartrending account of his coronavirus-stricken father’s final days, during which father and son could only communicate via text and phone calls.

  • Communal fundraisers, live-streamed concerts, video chats with old friends—has the coronavirus made the internet better? This is the question Jenna Wortham explores in her latest piece, writing, “Historically speaking, new infrastructures tend to emerge as a response to disasters.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Something Fun

Your Morning Dispatchers were heartened to learn we’re not the only ones who need this sort of information.

https://twitter.com/brianstelter/status/1247340621104283650

Toeing the Company Line

  • Be sure to check out the latest episode of Advisory Opinions, in which David and Sarah break down a couple stories we’ve largely passed over in TMD: the dismissal of a Naval captain from his ship over a leaked letter criticizing the branch’s failures to contain the virus among its ranks, and the firing of an intelligence community inspector general over his role in l’affaire Ukraine. 

  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio claimed last Friday that “there was suspicion,” but not “evidence,” that asymptomatic people could spread COVID-19 until last week. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp made a similar claim. Alec has a good fact check of those claims up at the site, which you can read here.

  • Daniel Vaughan looks at the many ways the World Health Organization has propped up China to the detriment of the rest of the world during the coronavirus pandemic.

Let Us Know

As the pandemic stretches on, your Morning Dispatchers continue to strain every nerve every day to bring you the best up-to-date information about the developing crisis. But we also can’t help but feel a little wistfully nostalgic about the stories we were so powerfully invested in before this crisis came along and gave us more important things to worry about. After the virus subsides a bit, which of these stories are you excited to get back to caring about? 

  • The 2020 horse race (Remember Joe Biden? Remember Bernie Sanders? Remember all those debates?

  • The fight over FISA reauthorization (Civil liberties! Secret courts! Spying on the Trump campaign?)

  • The fight over Trump’s border wall (A national emergency? Repurposing Defense dollars? When is Mexico going to pay up?)

  • MJ vs. LeBron (Why are David and Rachael so wrong, while Alec and Declan are so right?)

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Alec Dent (@Alec_Dent), Sarah Isgur (@whignewtons), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images.