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Views On The Pandemic From 3 Swing States


This week, individual states across much of the country will continue the process of gradually reopening their economies despite the fact that the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus pandemic continues to rise. Of course, conditions in each state differ, and the guidance from state and federal officials can be contradictory at times, which leaves millions of Americans unsure about whether or when it may be safe to return back to work. But the pressure to reopen is mounting, with more than 33 million people losing their jobs in recent weeks and the unemployment rate hitting its highest level since the Great Depression.

We want to start the program today by taking the pulse in three key states. They are Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Joining me now are Rochelle Riley, the director of arts and culture for the city of Detroit and a longtime columnist for The Detroit Free Press.

Welcome, Rochelle.


GONYEA: Also, Charles Franklin, who is professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Wisconsin's leading pollster. He's keeping tabs on voter attitudes for the Marquette Law School poll.

Charles, welcome.

CHARLES FRANKLIN: Thank you, Don - good to be back.

GONYEA: And Salena Zito, a Pennsylvania-based columnist for the Washington Examiner and the New York Post. She's known for doing most of her reporting driving, not flying, taking the side roads to get at what people in the smaller towns are talking about. She joins us from Pittsburgh.

Salena, hi.

SALENA ZITO: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.

GONYEA: So there have been protests against stay-at-home orders in all three of the states you guys live in. In Michigan, some protesters carried firearms into the state capitol building. Those images bounced around the world pretty quickly. Charles, you're in Wisconsin, but I want to start with you because you've done polling on the very issues these protesters are angry about. So how representative are they?

FRANKLIN: They're a clear minority, but I think it's fair to say they're a growing minority. When we see national polling, we're seeing the folks pushing hard for reopening more or less immediately in the 30 to 40% range. That's about where we are in Wisconsin today. But what has changed from March was you had 87% saying that shutdowns were an appropriate response. Just 10% were saying it was an overreaction.

But in the month or so since, we've seen Republican legislators as well as demonstrators pushing much harder for a faster reopening and also business organizations in the state pushing for that, while the Democratic governor wants to maintain the shutdown until the end of the month.

GONYEA: But we've got two things bumping up against each other, right? I mean, people are anxious to get back to work or to their normal lives when they can. But you're also seeing they're supportive of the steps that have been taken.

FRANKLIN: I think this is the really interesting trade-off between them. We're seeing some decline in people saying they're worried about the virus, worried about getting it themselves. But we're also seeing people now thinking this won't be back to normal for at least into the fall if not beyond that. That's a shift. People were much more optimistic about how quickly it would be decided earlier. So I think there's a trade-off.

We also see people willing to go out and do some things, like grocery shop or even shopping at a large big box store or visit friends. And people are pretty comfortable with that. But get into a stadium with 80,000 other fans - no, they're not ready to do that.

ZITO: Is anyone hearing concerns about how voting will actually go in November, especially after watching what happened in Wisconsin, when Republicans successfully fought in court to hold in-person elections recently despite the pandemic? Salena, you go first on this.

ZITO: So, you know, I think Wisconsin was a great boilerplate maybe to take a look at because you are able to vote by mail, and you are also able to vote in person. And I think people, while they might be hesitant to do it in person, I think they like the option of being able to do both. I don't think they want it to be one way and/or the other.

So here in Pennsylvania, we're coming up on our primary election on June 2. It was moved from mid-April. And I think that'll be another step to seeing how people react to doing it in person. And it'll tell us a little more, it'll give us a little more insight into what we can expect for November.

GONYEA: And what about Trump supporters you're talking to? The president himself has voiced his concerns about mail-in voting even though he's going to mail his own ballot in. What are you hearing from people about that?

ZITO: People are all over the place. That's one of the more interesting things for me that I have found. I've still been on the road. I've still been out there in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Tennessee and Kentucky and Michigan. And if you have the ability to work from home, you're annoyed, but you are a little more cautious about wanting to roll out. And if you don't have the ability to work from home, you're still conscious, but you are ready to see us - the country to start to be able to do more things and get closer to normal.

And those go all over the place. You can be Republican and want to stay home. You can be a Democrat and want to be out. You think people should be sorted in a certain place, but they're not.

GONYEA: Rochelle, you're in Michigan, in Detroit. Detroit has been one of those hotspots that we've looked at around the country. What are you hearing about these things - this push to reopen, but also the look ahead to an election and how worried people are about how they'll cast their vote if they'll be able to cast their vote?

RILEY: Well, Detroit appears to be a city sort of under siege right now between COVID-19 and us being one of the top four spots in the country for deaths, particularly among African Americans. And then the unemployment rate - you know, a year ago, April 20, in Michigan, we had, I guess, about 4,800 people to file unemployment claims. At that same time this year, we had 134,000. The unemployment rate topped 17%.

So you've got an economic siege. You've got the coronavirus siege. And then you've got this terrible fear of the mail-in ballot. This is a place where although the voter turnout is not always great, people like to go in person. But now there's this growing distrust because of the president naming a GOP donor to lead the postal service at a time where our secretary of state and lots of organizations are saying, you don't have to leave your house, you can mail in your ballot. And there are people who think, well, if I mail it, it'll never be seen by anybody. We're all over the place with concerns, with fear, with some uncertainty about what will be fair.

GONYEA: You and I have both spent many, many years in Detroit. I haven't lived and worked there in a long time, but it's a place that lately has been getting - lately, I mean, in recent years - has been getting a lot of good press nationally. It's been portrayed as a comeback story.

RILEY: It's been awesome. It's...

GONYEA: It's...

RILEY: ...Just awesome.

GONYEA: (Laughter) And we're not used to that. But I'm wondering if there are fears that this could even short-circuit that?

RILEY: There have been lots of discussions about that. Mayor Duggan, for whom I now work - let me make sure to say that out loud because going from being a journalist for 20 years to working in arts and culture, it's a whole different side of things, I can tell you, that I'd never seen. People work so hard to make sure that we can maintain a type of status quo.

All of this progress this one made, particularly in the past 10 to 12 years, doesn't go away so that all of a sudden, we wake up, and we feel like we're exiting bankruptcy again, as we did a few years ago. There's a great fight to go on, to not take a step back.

GONYEA: I want to wrap by getting just a short answer from each of you, if I may. What have you been hearing in your respective states that surprises you? Charles - Wisconsin.

FRANKLIN: I think the pressure to reopen is very strong. But the real question will be, if we look in July or August, what has been the path of the epidemic? And what has been the path of the economy? Campaigns matter, but those two overwhelming real-world circumstances, I think, shape the fall campaign far more than sort of a normal economy ever would.

GONYEA: Salena, what's been surprising to you in Pennsylvania?

ZITO: The lack of people talking about politics. People are more concerned about their communities and about their lives and really have no appetite for robust discussion about politics in the way that you would expect at this moment.

GONYEA: And, Rochelle, what surprises have you stumbled upon in Michigan?

RILEY: Well, Don, you know me, and nothing surprises me. But...

GONYEA: (Laughter).

RILEY: If anything came close, it's the rise of Gretchen Whitmer. There were people who, of course, knew that she could do the job. But the way that she's handled this...

GONYEA: This is the governor, of course.

RILEY: This is the governor, Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. The way she's handled this pandemic, rising to a 63% approval rating and taking on a legislature that would sue to limit her powers - people are watching sort of what they call the making of a star and what I call somebody just actually leading. We'll see how long that lasts - which, of course, will depend on how responsibly and furtively she reopens businesses and - which she's already started doing. But that's been interesting to watch.

Other than that, I think Salena's right - that there is no big anything going on. People are just talking about the coronavirus and work and a lack of work. I hear very little talk about politics.

GONYEA: That was Rochelle Riley. She's the director of arts and culture for the city of Detroit and a former columnist at The Detroit Free Press. We've also been talking with Salena Zito. She joined us via Skype. She's a columnist at the Washington Examiner and The New York Post. And Charles Franklin, a professor of law and public policy at Marquette University in Milwaukee and the founder of

Thank you all for joining me.

RILEY: Thank you.

ZITO: Thank you.

FRANKLIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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