MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Health officials tied nearly 150 coronavirus cases to a Green Bay meatpacking plant on Wednesday, while the number of people who may have contracted the virus after going to the polls on April 7 also grew.
Meanwhile, organizers of a rally against Wisconsin’s extended stay-at-home order said they would proceed with the event on Friday even though a permit to hold it on the grounds of the Capitol has been denied.
To date, 246 people in Wisconsin have died from the virus and more than 4,800 have tested positive.
The Brown County Health Department said 147 employees and family members of workers at JBS Packerland meatpacking plant in Green Bay have tested positive for COVID-19. There were also 39 cases tied to American Foods Group in Green Bay and another 19 to sausage maker Salm Partners in Denmark, about 20 miles away.
All of the Green Bay-area facilities remain open, even though meatpacking plants experiencing outbreaks in other states have closed down.
The state health department said that of all the people in Wisconsin confirmed with the coronavirus since the April 7 election, 19 say they either voted in person or were at the polls on election day. It was too soon to say whether they contracted it while at the polls, and the department did not say where these infections occurred.
Five Wisconsin National Guard members who were at the polls displayed symptoms consistent with the virus, but only one was tested and that came back negative, said Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp. Doctors would not give the other four tests, he said.
A protest planned for Friday would be the latest in a string of event s across the country against such orders they say are damaging the economy. It has the potential to be the largest yet in Wisconsin; as of Wednesday, more than 3,300 people said on Facebook that they are going and 12,000 were interested.
Organizer Madison Elmer applied for a permit with the state Department of Administration on April 14. Capitol Police on Monday denied the permit because the gathering would violate the order barring gatherings of any size.
Elmer pledged to forge ahead, despite the risk of being cited by law enforcement.
“I think our message is bigger than that to be worried about it,” Elmer said.
When asked to comment about enforcement actions, Capitol Police spokeswoman Molly Vidal said their mission is to protect civil liberties, which includes freedom of speech and assembly. Gov. Tony Evers has said he respects the protesters’ free speech rights, but that he also hopes they maintain a safe distance from one another.
Organizers urged participants to be peaceful. But they are leaving it up to each participant to decide whether to follow social distancing guidelines that public health experts say are essential to stopping the spread of the virus.
Elmer said the event would be a chance to bring people together to voice their concerns about the impact of the shutdown, even though the large gathering goes against all public health guidance and the current order against gatherings.
Elmer said organizers turned down politicians who wanted to address the rally, instead inviting a doctor, a nurse, farmers and small business owners to speak.
Evers declared a public health emergency on March 12 and later ordered the closures of bars, restaurants and nonessential businesses.
The rally was originally timed to take place on the same day that Evers’ first stay-at-home order closing most nonessential businesses in the state was to expire. But last week, Evers’ health secretary extended the order until May 26. The move angered Republicans who filed a lawsuit on Tuesday, asking the state’s conservative-controlled Supreme Court to block the order.
Meanwhile, local elected officials have been voicing displeasure with the expanded stay-at-home order.
Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling, a Republican, said it was crippling businesses and that he would leave enforcement of the order to public health experts. Polk County Sheriff Brent Waak, a Republican, called the order an overreach and said he would only enforce it within reason.
Washington County Administrator Josh Schoemann reopened golf courses on April 16 in defiance of the order. Evers loosened restrictions to allow golf courses to open on Friday.