Rune Mathisen from Skien, Norway / CC BY-SA

April 22, 2020; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

In some states, pressure to reopen the US economy has been mounting, but there is more to some of these efforts than meets the eye. Behind what superficially appear to be grassroots protests, one finds the hand of powerful lobbying interests—a classic instance of what has been popularly dubbed “astroturfing”—so called because the grassroots are about as natural as the lawn is in artificial turf.

As Isaac Stanley-Becker and Tony Romm explain in the Washington Post:

A network of right-leaning individuals and groups, aided by nimble online outfits, has helped incubate the fervor erupting in state capitals across the country. The activism is often organic and the frustration deeply felt, but it is also being amplified, and in some cases coordinated, by longtime conservative activists, whose robust operations were initially set up with help from Republican megadonors.

Wisconsin, of course, has been the scene of some of these protests, with an estimated 1,500 people showing up on the capitol lawn in Madison last Friday. The state’s governor, Tony Evers (D), has ordered that quarantining, or “safer-at-home” rules, to be extended through May 26th. Evers has outlined a plan for re-opening the state that would rely on testing and a downward trend in the number of cases that are confirmed.

But now state assembly speaker Robin Vos (R) and senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) are suing, saying that decree was made without due process and that they should have been consulted. The lawsuit is going straight to the state supreme court, a tactic they had used on the eve of a general election to ensure that many voters in Wisconsin would have to vote in person and risk infection.

Vos and Fitzgerald do not have an alternative plan on the table. There is a group that does, however: Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC). WMC is a statewide chamber of commerce, organized as a 501c6, and is one of the most powerful lobbying voices in the state.

WMC has forwarded to the governor and the legislature a plan that would begin the process of reopening the state’s economy as of May 4, 2020. Whereas the governor’s proposal looks to expand testing first and then to open the whole state, WMC’s Back to Business plan would ask businesses to enter limited information to a questionnaire that would then rate the risk factor and suggest whether or not the business could open.

According to their description, the calculations would include “Healthcare Capacity/Utilization in County of Operation,” but would it include proximity to that healthcare? A recent New York Times article indicates, for example, that in northern Wisconsin there are places where residents are more than 30 minutes away from the care they would need. It has also been suggested by leaders in the medical industry that the plan does not take into consideration caseload trends, consequences for noncompliance, and other issues.

It is not clear if Vos and Fitzgerald assume the WMC plan would be the fallback should they prevail in their lawsuit, but given their past history of working with WMC on other legislation, including recent efforts that vitiated worker compensation protections for workers contracting the virus on the job, that might be a reasonable assumption. As this plays out, it should be noted that the number of confirmed cases in Wisconsin is rising; as of April 26th, there have been 5,911 COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin, and the number of deaths is 272, with little evidence that the curve is flattening.—Rob Meiksins