Fact check: Did Wisconsin senator say Americans should go back to work?

Eric Litke

Leaders across the country are largely unanimous in calling for compliance with dramatic social changes to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican elected after a long career in the business world, struck a slightly different chord in a guest column in USA TODAY.

The piece drew plenty of attention online and across social media, including an article published March 31, that has been shared widely on Facebook.

That article summarized Johnson’s column with this headline: “Ron Johnson: Americans Should Go Back To Work, Because ‘Death Is An Unavoidable Part Of Life.’”

Let’s see how that summary lines up with Johnson’s piece.

The claim: Ron Johnson said Americans should go back to work because “death is an unavoidable part of life.”

The headline implies Johnson is calling for a widespread — or even comprehensive — return to work.

The Johnson piece in USA TODAY, published March 29, makes clear at the start he is not calling for any such immediate return to normalcy. Here is how it reads:

"I’m not aware of any public official, including President Donald Trump, who is calling for a complete opening of the U.S. economy.

"What more people are saying is that as we learn more about COVID-19, we should evaluate the total societal cost of this awful disease and try to put things into perspective. …

"Imagine the potential psychological and human toll if this shutdown continues indefinitely, unemployment reaches 20% or higher, as some now predict, and we sink into a deep recession or depression."

Johnson says social distancing “should continue until this outbreak is under control.”

But he did also reference death being unavoidable. Here’s the full context for that line:

"Every premature death is a tragedy, but death is an unavoidable part of life. More than 2.8 million die each year — nearly 7,700 a day. The 2017-18 flu season was exceptionally bad, with 61,000 deaths attributed to it. Can you imagine the panic if those mortality statistics were attributed to a new virus and reported nonstop?"

Johnson goes on to call for reversing the current labeling of “essential businesses,” saying we should instead determine nonessential business “that pose a risk for coronavirus spread.” He said those could be shut down and financial support provided to the employees and businesses until they can reopen.

Our ruling: False headline

Johnson did use the line about death being unavoidable, but the headline exaggerates his position, implying he thinks all or most people should go back to work. He explicitly says he supports social distancing and keeping some businesses closed at this point. The brief story linked in the Facebook post describes Johnson’s position more accurately than the headline, though it also opens by labeling him “the living embodiment of clueless privilege.” We rate this a False Headline.

Our fact-check sources

Contact Eric Litke at (414) 225-5061 or elitke@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ericlitke.

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