With more than 90,000 Americans dead, over 36 million suddenly jobless and the economy reeling, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been felt by everyone, but “the pain has been especially profound in rural America,” former Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday in a virtual roundtable with western Wisconsin officials.
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee called for improved trade policies, broadband expansion and more support for small businesses and farmers to help rural communities recover from the economic consequences of the coronavirus emergency.
“Rural communities power our nation. They feed our bodies. They fuel our engines. They’re the stewards that protect our lands, and we cannot sustain an economy that exacts value from them without ever sharing in the rewards,” said Biden, who co-hosted the panel with U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse. “The only way we’re going to come through this crisis and rebuild our economy is by ensuring that we leave no community behind.”
Biden and Kind both took the opportunity to criticize GOP President Donald Trump for a lack of federal leadership in the fight against the health and economic crises.
“A lot of this could have been prevented,” Biden said, arguing that Trump ignored early warnings about the seriousness of the threat. “COVID-19 is not his fault, but the failure to respond quickly is a big problem.”
Biden said the president needs to be honest with the American people, follow the guidance of scientists studying the issue, marshal federal resources to boost testing capacity in communities across the country and immediately start planning a strategy to respond to a potential second wave of the virus.
Kind, a 12-term incumbent who faces challenges from the right and left this year, said the health crisis serves as a reminder that the most fundamental role of government is to keep citizens safe and healthy.
“As we emerge from the pandemic ... we will have to reassess our national security priorities,” Kind said. “It’s going to have to be more than just protecting people from bullets and bombs. Now we’re going to have to protect them from bugs.”
Kind also said people need stronger leadership from the White House.
“It’s mind-boggling that five months after the virus landed on our shores we still lack a national plan and vision to come out of this crisis together,” he said. “The people back home don’t see this as a red or a blue issue. They see it as a red, white and blue issue. We need to stay united.”
Andrew Hitt, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, released a statement Wednesday characterizing the session as Biden pandering to Wisconsinites.
“Wisconsin needs President Trump’s continued leadership in the White House to get us through the COVID-19 pandemic and back to prosperity,” Hitt said. “Joe Biden’s increasingly far-left agenda couldn’t be more wrong for Wisconsin. From Biden’s position on supporting the Green New Deal that would devastate Wisconsin farmers and manufacturers to his plans to launch a government takeover of healthcare that would force millions off their plans, Biden proves that he is out-of-touch with the people of Wisconsin.”
Biden and Kind heard from three rural leaders — Trempealeau County economic development and tourism coordinator Rob Grover, Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden of Westby and Mari Freiberg, CEO of Scenic Bluffs Community Health Centers in Cashton — about challenges faced by residents and businesses in western Wisconsin.
Grover, a Galesville farmer, talked about the economic impact of bars, restaurants and small businesses shutting down in mid-March when Gov. Tony Evers imposed a safer-at-home order to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“When those places closed overnight basically, we had business people losing their income and we had their workers losing their income as well,” Grover said, adding that job loss also led to many people losing health insurance. “It was incredibly devastating.”
With Wisconsin beginning to reopen, Grover said small-business owners are uneasy about the future and looking for federal guidance on how to best protect employees and customers.
“Businesses can’t survive if they can’t be open, but when we don’t have guidance about how to do it safely it’s a real mess for everyone,” he said.
Freiberg said the Scenic Bluffs health care facilities managed to launch a telemedicine program in a few weeks and have been deploying it to provide mental health services for many residents struggling with the stress of the pandemic.
But that only works for clients who have access to reliable internet — something that’s not the case for some rural Wisconsin residents, Freiberg said, backing Biden’s call for more investment in rural broadband.
Freiberg lamented the absence of a national plan for COVID-19 testing and the lack of needed testing supplies and personal protective equipment at some medical facilities.
“It feels like unforced errors. It’s preventable, and that is tragic,” she said. “When you hear conversations about health care workers putting their lives on the line (without proper PPE) and going in as heroic battlers, it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Von Ruden painted a bleak picture of Wisconsin agriculture by telling the former vice president that 10% of Wisconsin farmers went out of business last year and another 8% in 2018 and describing demoralizing scenarios in which farmers are dumping milk because of low prices and euthanizing livestock because of the lack of access to meat-processing plants hit by COVID-19 outbreaks.
Von Ruden also reiterated Biden’s allegation that the tariffs sparked by Trump’s trade war hurt farmers in Wisconsin, which leads the nation in farm bankruptcies, before the virus struck.
Biden, a former senator from Delaware, labeled this “an incredibly anxious moment for our nation” and insisted that helping rural America recover is key to a national recovery.
“We have to keep Main Street open,” Biden said, “because it’s the heart and soul that makes everything beat in all these small communities in my state and yours.”