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Trump Moves Planned La Crosse Rally To Janesville As Doctors, Mayors Call For Stop To Large Gatherings

Trump Campaign Rally Saturday In Green Bay Would Be In National Hotspots

A line of U.S. flags can be seen behind Pres. Donald Trump as he speaks at a podium
President Donald Trump speaks Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, at a rally in Mosinee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The Trump campaign has moved a rally planned for La Crosse on Saturday to Janesville as Wisconsin experiences its deadliest COVID-19 spike since the pandemic began. A second event scheduled for Green Bay will move forward as planned.

The mayors of both La Crosse and Green Bay, along with medical professionals and public health officials were among those who called on President Donald Trump to refrain from the appearances, which are expected to draw thousands of attendees.

Wisconsin’s rate of new coronavirus infections is among the highest in the nation. More people are hospitalized and in ICUs in Wisconsin than at any time since the pandemic began, and on Wednesday the state recorded 27 deaths from the disease, its highest single-day total. The state again set a single-day record for new cases Thursday with 2,887, and recorded 21 more deaths from the disease.

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Trump has made frequent campaign stops in Wisconsin, a swing state in the presidential race. But the severity of the state’s most recent outbreak of the virus has led state leaders and public health officials to sound alarms about the dangers of gatherings of all sorts, including large outdoor events held with people in close quarters. That describes Trump’s campaign events, where mask-wearing is typically rare and social distancing is virtually impossible.

A spokesperson for La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat said Thursday they had received word that Air Force One was no longer coming to the city, “so we are assuming the Trump campaign has changed its plan and is not coming to La Crosse.”

La Crosse’s airport manager said the president canceled the rally because the airport’s lease didn’t allow for such an event to be held there.

Kabat, along with Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich, had previously called for the weekend rallies to be canceled or postponed. Genrich told Bloomberg News that holding the rallies would be “incredibly unwise and dangerous.”

Both mayors are Democrats; Trump is a Republican.

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Democratic Gov. Tony Evers also criticized Trump’s decision to schedule rallies in the state. On Tuesday, he said Trump could help to protect Wisconsinites’ health by simply not coming to the state. Failing that, Evers said, Trump could require that everyone at the events wear a mask.

On Thursday morning, members of a liberal physicians group said holding rallies in Wisconsin during a pandemic spike is irresponsible. They connected it with what they called the president’s broader mishandling of the pandemic.

“President Trump has given medically inaccurate information since the earliest days of the pandemic,” said Dr. Ann Helms, a Milwaukee neurologist and a member of the Committee to Protect Medicare. “The president’s lack of leadership is putting lives at risk. He should not come to Wisconsin and put even more lives at risk with his reckless campaign rallies.”

A spokesperson for the Trump campaign declined to address questions from WPR about whether moving forward with the Green Bay rally would undermine public health officials’ calls for Wisconsinites to stay home. In a statement, Deputy National Press Secretary Courtney Parella said Trump supporters “want to and have a right to gather under the First Amendment to hear from the president” and that attendees will be “encouraged” to wear masks.

Trump himself often casts his rallies in opposition to stay-at-home orders of state and local officials. Wisconsin has no statewide restrictions on gatherings, but at a Sept. 17 rally in central Wisconsin, Trump falsely claimed that due to COVID-19 restrictions, “you’re not allowed to have a political rally for more than 10 people; you’re not allowed to go to church; you’re not allowed to meet; you’re not allowed to talk to anybody” — but that since “protests” are allowed, “officially, this is called a protest. … We call them friendly protests.”

In truth, Wisconsin does not limit attendance at rallies, churches or meetings. Among the campaign-approved signs distributed to supporters at the event were signs that read “This is a peaceful protest” and “Peaceful protester.”

A spokesperson for the state Department of Health Services said this week that the state had not tracked any new COVID-19 cases connected to Trump’s rally at the central Wisconsin Airport. That absence of known cases is not evidence that there was no transmission, and comes at a time when the capacity for contact tracing is strained or overloaded at many health departments. But the Trump campaign has repeatedly claimed that outdoor rallies, like the one attended by an estimated 7,000 people in central Wisconsin, do not present a risk to attendees. The Green Bay rally is scheduled to be held outdoors, as was the canceled La Crosse event.

“Of course it’s better that it’s outside — but it’s not good,” said Dr. Robert Freedland of La Crosse, also with the Committee to Protect Medicare.

Outdoor transmission of the virus is less common because of air circulation, Freedland said. But with most attendees declining to wear masks, and thousands of people crammed into venue spaces, there’s still a risk of infection.

If it does go forward, the rally in Green Bay would be in a location that is an especially hard-hit, high-risk area right now. According to the New York Times’ COVID-19 tracking tool, Green Bay has the third-highest number of daily new cases per capita in the nation for the last two weeks. Oshkosh-Neenah and Appleton, both of which are near Green Bay and would likely attract visitors to the Trump rally, are also among the five worst cities in America for the pandemic. The site of the canceled rally, La Crosse, is 11th on that list.

“These thousands of people who show up are vectors,” Freedland said. “Do they work in a health care facility? Do they work in a jail? Do they work in an assisted living facility? Do they work in a nursing home? It just increases the severity of the outbreak by gathering.”

Editor’s note: The Associated Press contributed reporting.