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Portage votes through pandemic
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Portage votes through pandemic

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Precautions for voting Tuesday in Portage didn’t surprise the voters already used to it for the past several weeks.

Voter Zach Lewis waited 45 minutes before he entered rooms vacated by City poll site open with focus on sanitation, safety patients at SSM Health St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo.

“That’s how long it can take for the droplets to settle,” he said. Lewis, who works in environmental services, cleans these rooms while wearing a protective mask, gown and gloves.

At Portage city hall, he answered questions from poll worker Justin O’Rourke at the front door. Both men donned cloth masks for the spring election.

“Have you come into contact with a person known or suspected to have COVID-19?” O’Rourke asked him. “Have you had a fever in the last 24 hours? Have you had a cough in the last 24 hours? Have you had any difficulty breathing in the last 24 hours?”

Lewis, due to his profession, chose to vote outside of the building. Voters who answered “yes” to any of O’Rourke’s questions were encouraged, but not required to do the same, City Clerk Marie Moe said. Others, such as those with disabilities, had the option of voting curbside from their vehicles.

Inside, poll worker Matt Foster asked voters if he could spray their hands with hand sanitizer as they entered the basement and then wiped down the polling stations immediately after they voted.

Foster, 63, had never volunteered to be a poll worker before Tuesday.

“I wanted to make sure people could come in and vote,” he said of his decision. “But I think the election should have been postponed for safety reasons.”

Lewis said he agreed that postponing the election “would have been the responsible action to take” and regretted missing the deadline to vote by absentee ballot. “I thought we’d be voting in June.”

Voters Richard and Judi Fruit, husband and wife, said they were happy that the Wisconsin Supreme Court overruled Gov. Tony Evers, who had tried to postpone the election by executive order Monday.

“I don’t like absentee ballots. I don’t trust them,” Richard Fruit said. “There are too many chances for something to go wrong.”

Judi Fruit, a retired registered nurse, said they would have thought twice about voting in person if they lived in New York City or even Milwaukee, where the virus outbreak is much worse. They felt safe in Portage.

“You should be washing your hands, whether there’s a virus or not,” Judi Fruit said of the precautions they were taking as senior citizens. “There are germs everywhere.”

Voter Lindsay Patterson didn’t have enough time to vote by absentee ballot because she had recently moved to Portage from Baraboo. She’s a health educator at the Sauk County Health Department who specializes in substance-abuse prevention and used to be coordinator of the community coalition, Prevention and Response Columbia County.

“Obviously, they’re putting people more at risk by having them come out for the election,” Patterson said. “I didn’t have a choice and would have preferred to not be here today.”

Foster’s 73-year-old sister tested positive for the virus about a week ago in Milwaukee, he said. She was tested three times for COVID-19 while hospitalized for separate health issues and her second and third test came back negative. But then her first test, which had been sent to a laboratory in California, came back positive.

She’s recovering at home and seems to be doing OK “for now,” Foster said.

Poll workers Roxann Brue and Patricia Hinickle, who sat behind a large plastic sheet, said they were disappointed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision to hold the election Tuesday, a decision they thought put poll workers and voters at greater risk of contracting the virus.

“Most of us are over 60,” Brue said of Wisconsin poll workers. “I know of a few city clerks (in Wisconsin) who are thinking of resigning over this and I feel for them with everything they’ve had to do to prepare for this election.”

“It’s scary,” Brue said. “People need to stay at home and keep their distance, but voting is a necessity.”

The women pointed out all the precautions that were taken by the workers Tuesday and how even the writing tools for voters would not be overlooked.

“If they take a pen, they keep the pen,” Hinickle said.

Voter C.J. Bolssen, who works for a tire company in Sun Prairie, said he has voted in person his whole life and would never consider voting by absentee ballot. His decision to vote Tuesday and not wear a mask relates to his faith in Jesus Christ, he said.

“Some people are really, really scared even to leave their house and it’s understandable,” he said. “But I’m not scared at all. I’m a Christian, and I feel like I’m covered in the blood of Christ and he protects me from anything. Nothing is bigger than him.”

Voter and railroad worker Adam Gaffney said he missed the deadline to vote by absentee and was worried about the coronavirus because of his 12-year-old son with cystic fibrosis.

“I don’t know what the right answer is,” Gaffney said of voting Tuesday. “If they could have postponed it, that might have been better, but they should have started that process a lot earlier.”

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau or contact him at 608-695-4956.

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