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Surging coronavirus cases loom large in pivotal Wisconsin

Members of the Wisconsin National Guard operated a mobile COVID-19 test center on the grounds of Miller Park late last month in Milwaukee.
Members of the Wisconsin National Guard operated a mobile COVID-19 test center on the grounds of Miller Park late last month in Milwaukee.Scott Olson/Getty

GREEN BAY, Wis. — The final days of the presidential campaign have collided with a staggering coronavirus surge across this state, confronting voters with a miserable manifestation of the election’s defining issue in a battleground state that polls show may be slipping out of President Trump’s reach.

COVID-19 cases have shot up 89 percent in Wisconsin over the past two weeks, according to a New York Times database, and doctors are warning of an imminent shortage of intensive care unit beds. There is a field hospital set up at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds. And the rites of the season — like trick-or-treating or football games — have been sharply curtailed, adding another pall to the end of a grim campaign season.

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It is a crisis unfolding before voters’ eyes, shaping their lives as many of them prepare to cast ballots on Tuesday — and one that Democrats believe will render Trump’s relentlessly sunny prognosis about the course of the virus untenable in a state he narrowly won in 2016.

“Just yesterday we broke another record for the number of positive cases in a day: 5,278,” said Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, over the weekend. “It’s raging out of control, and we are nine months into this pandemic.”

Baldwin and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar appeared in their team colors under spitting snowflakes and a cold wind to underscore what was missing from an autumn Sunday in Green Bay: Tailgating fans, cheering crowds, even the traffic that should have been winding through this city as the Packers played the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field.

A nearby bar called the Sardine Can, where the sign outside says “always packed,” was not.

In recent days, Trump has bet on the idea of pandemic fatigue, hoping to tell voters tired of masks and social distancing exactly what they want to hear. On Friday, he also alighted here and declared at a rally that “we’re rounding the turn on a pandemic.”

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But it is not clear how much of the alarming coronavirus reality his optimism can actually drown out — especially in a county like this one, where the total number of cases represents 1 in 16 people, per the Times database.

“The almost daily increases in cases, deaths, and hospitalizations in Wisconsin keep voters’ attention on the pandemic and that attention does not help Donald Trump,” said Barry C. Burden, the director of the Election Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

For Sarah Neumann, a 23-year-old nursing student, the pandemic has become impossible to block out. Neumann lives with her boyfriend’s parents, one of whom has begun to show symptoms of COVID-19.

She found herself in downtown Green Bay on Sunday, wondering if there was anywhere to study where she could take her mask off.

Neumann voted for Trump in 2016 — “That was based off my parents’ views,” she explained — but now she feels demoralized by a difficult year, tired of hearing about the election, and unmotivated to vote for him again. She does not, in fact, anticipate voting at all.

“I don’t think it matters,” Neumann said. “It’s been such a weird year — everything just sucks, really.”

In 2016, Trump won this state by fewer than 23,000 votes, which was less than one percent of the vote, but the polling average compiled by the FiveThirtyEight website shows him trailing Democrat Joe Biden by 8 points. Even Republicans admit the going is tougher for Trump in Wisconsin this time around.

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“The opposition has paid a lot more attention than Hillary Clinton did four years ago,” said Scott Walker, the state’s former governor. “It’s going to be razor-thin and I think it’s just tougher.”

Republicans like Walker are trying to emphasize the looming possibility of a vaccine, but he also suggested Trump has not done himself any favors here with his undisciplined campaign rallies.

“If it was me, I wouldn’t probably talk as long as he does. He talks about a bunch of things,” Walker said. “I think the right message is talking about the economy for the next four years.”

COVID-19 cases have also risen sharply in other states in the Midwest and Great Plains, including Iowa, South Dakota, and Montana, but the outbreak in Wisconsin is among the worst in any battleground state, which could make it a test of how much voters will punish Trump for the virus’s deadly resurgence. During the last two weeks, deaths have risen by 167 percent, according to the Times. Only a handful of counties are reporting fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 residents, a key benchmark for keeping the spread of the virus in check.

The surge appears to be further eroding Trump’s standing with voters. A poll released last week by the Washington Post and ABC found that 59 percent of voters disapprove of his handling of the pandemic, a five-point rise since September. (A different poll found 56 percent approval for Democratic Governor Tony Evers’s handling of the pandemic; that poll had approval for Trump at 41 percent.)

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“It’s the thing that is driving everybody’s lives,” said Sachin Chheda, a Democratic strategist based in Milwaukee, who said his party’s focus on the virus is less a political strategy than “simply a recognition of reality.”

Indeed, the signs of the pandemic are everywhere. Milwaukee’s Miller Park baseball stadium is now home to a COVID testing site that can see 2,000 people a day. More people than that have come looking to be tested, local news reports say, and had to be turned away.

Trump has bragged about saving college football in the Midwest’s Big Ten conference from a coronavirus shutdown, but the surge in cases even derailed last Saturday’s Wisconsin-Nebraska game after six Wisconsin players and staffers, including the coach, tested positive for the virus.

And it was all but impossible for voters to ignore the latest outbreak, whether or not they support the president.

In Oshkosh, Paul Rosenbaum is feeling the effects of the virus that sickened him about a month ago and caused him to miss two weeks of work. He is 25, but still sometimes has trouble breathing. He plans to vote for Biden.

“We need somebody else in office to get a little more control,” he said.

In Racine, about 25 miles south of Milwaukee on the shores of Lake Michigan, residents on Saturday were trying to hold onto fall tradition by trick-or-treating on the main drag, but things were still different.

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A member of the local Republican Party, wearing a mask decorated with the GOP’s elephant symbol, handed out candy to children passing by one corner. Chad Krenzke accepted some for his son.

Krenzke, who was sporting a button with Trump’s name on it, said he had backed him in 2016 and was planning to do so again, even though it “would be nice” if the president more consistently set an example about wearing masks.

“He’s done a good job balancing safety” with personal choice, said Krenzke, whose face was covered with a green neck gaiter.

Jennifer Seversen, a stay-at-home mom trick-or-treating with her daughter, who had attached sparkly streamers to an umbrella as a jellyfish costume, said Trump’s handling of the pandemic had left her frustrated and all the more motivated to vote early for Biden.

“It’s part of my problem — denying that it’s real, and then coming down with it, and then saying it’s not that bad,” Seversen said, lamenting the fact that she hadn’t even been inside a grocery store in months, and that her daughter Sarah could not go to school.

Back in Green Bay, Trump’s handling of the pandemic had motivated Nancy Williquette, 68, to get more involved with her local Democratic Party than she ever has before.

“I am not going to let this go,” she said. “All you have to do is wear masks and keep a distance, and that has not been regulated.”



Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.