In Midwest Battlegrounds, the Virus Met Another Concern: the Economy

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KENOSHA, Wis. — When Americans voted in this presidential election, they made it clear that of all the crucial issues facing the country, the coronavirus pandemic towered over the rest.

They remained diametrically opposed, however, on how the pandemic reflected on President Trump.

In the Midwest — states that were battlegrounds in the presidential race and where the virus has soared — supporters of Mr. Trump defended his handling of the crisis, praised his efforts to revive the economy and echoed his suggestions that the virus’s dangers were overblown.

And on Wednesday, with all eyes on the election outcome, new records in Minnesota and Indiana pushed the country above 100,000 virus cases in a single day for the first time since the pandemic began.

Those who voted for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. frequently said that Mr. Trump’s response to the pandemic had given them one more urgent reason to vote him out.

“We need somebody in office who has a game plan,” said Gabrielle Young, a 30-year-old health care worker in Kenosha, Wis., who said she had never cared about politics in the past.

That changed this year. She said she was disgusted by Mr. Trump’s dismissal of masks and his shoulder-to-shoulder rallies, including one he hosted on the eve of the election in Wisconsin, a state Mr. Biden went on to narrowly win.

Then, Ms. Young said, there are Mr. Trump’s false promises of a national recovery from the coronavirus. “Trump keeps saying that the vaccine is ready, and the vaccine is not ready,” Ms. Young said. “You’re not giving us hope. You’re giving us false hope.”

In Ohio, where coronavirus hospitalizations are at a peak, Mr. Trump triumphed on Tuesday just as he did in 2016, sweeping northeastern counties that were once Democratic strongholds.

Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Mr. Trump’s supporters said they saw little reason to punish him for the pandemic, which has caused a crisis around the world.

“I’m not as afraid of Covid as I am of a bad economy,” said Ish Soltay, 51, of Avon Lake, a suburb west of Cleveland. His county, Lorain, which was once reliably Democratic, went for Hillary Clinton by 131 votes in 2016. On Tuesday, it appeared to surge further right, flipping to Mr. Trump, according to preliminary vote tallies.

Mr. Soltay, a retired critical care nurse who now sells portable oxygen machines, said he had been personally affected by the coronavirus, which infected his son and chipped away at his paychecks in medical sales. But his support for the president was stronger now than it was four years ago, he said, and on the day before the election, Mr. Soltay took a day off work to make his views known near an appearance by Mr. Biden in Cleveland, two Trump flags waving from the roof of his car.

“In the beginning, March, April, May time frame, I would say corona was a bigger issue for me,” said Mr. Soltay, who said he locked down inside his house in the spring, leaving to go to the grocery store and changing his clothes afterward. “By the time I was voting, if I had to rank them, economy was one to me.”

In the Midwest, coronavirus cases have surged dangerously and hospitals have neared capacity in recent days, leaving voters with even more reason to send a message about the pandemic. Even as coronavirus cases rose in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, closely related issues — the economy and shutdowns — were top of mind.

Twelve states around the Midwest added more cases in the seven-day period ending Tuesday than in any other week of the pandemic, a sign of the rapidly devolving situation in the center of the country as infections and hospitalizations continue to spike.

The situation is especially volatile in Wisconsin, which has for weeks been adding cases at one of the highest rates in the country. More than 35,000 infections have been identified over the last week, the most in any seven-day stretch of the pandemic. As of Wednesday morning, seven of the 20 American metropolitan areas with the most cases per capita in recent days were in Wisconsin.

Still, some Wisconsin voters said that while they were deeply worried about the pandemic, they were unsure whether they should have steered their support to Mr. Biden because of it.

Brenda Garcia, 63, recounted all the things she and her husband, who live in Kenosha, have missed since the pandemic hit. They have canceled three vacations and countless dinners with friends, children and grandchildren. In a few weeks, Thanksgiving will be a quiet affair: just the two of them.

Yet by Election Day, Ms. Garcia said she was not inclined to say that Mr. Trump had seriously erred in his handling of the pandemic.

“I think he should have taken it a little more serious,” she said as she left a neighborhood church that doubled as a polling place. “But I’m just not blaming anybody. We don’t know what Biden would have done. Who’s to say he would have done any better?”

The Midwest’s struggles with the coronavirus reach far beyond Wisconsin. Covid-19 cases have been rising sharply in Michigan, Ohio, Iowa and Minnesota, all relatively competitive states in the presidential race. The Omaha area, where voters awarded a single electoral vote to Mr. Biden, has been adding cases at record levels. And in Minnesota, more than 3,800 new cases were announced on Wednesday, shattering a record set a day earlier.

Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

In downtown Cleveland on Wednesday, James Williams, 53, was getting off work from his job as a cook at a hotel and heading to a second job stacking boxes at a factory. Wearing a mask as he hustled to catch the bus, Mr. Williams said he cast his vote for Mr. Biden. His chief reason? “For the world’s safety,” he said, “because of this pandemic.”

Unemployment remains high in Cuyahoga County, and Mr. Williams said he had been set back for five months, scraping by with temporary jobs. He said his cousins caught the virus, as did friends.

“People fail to realize the economy is going to be there,” he said. “You can always reboot and rebuild the economy, but you can’t reboot and rebuild a nation of people.”

Some people saw a vote for Mr. Trump as a move toward normalcy, a way out of the coronavirus crisis and the restrictions that surround it.

As he stood outside his polling place at a recreation center in Waterford Township, Mich., on Tuesday, Robert Myers, 73, lamented that he had to wear a face covering.

Mr. Myers, who voted for Mr. Trump, said he approved of the way the president managed the coronavirus.

“He doesn’t try to push something on you that you don’t want,” he said. “The government has their nose enough in other people’s business.”

His greatest hope for the country? “Getting rid of these stupid masks,” he said while still wearing one.

Julie Bosman reported from Kenosha, Sarah Mervosh from Cleveland, and Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio from Detroit. Mitch Smith contributed reporting from Chicago.