David Spies shares his story about working at the Pinney Library on Madison's east side a couple of days prior to the Safer at Home social distancing order in spring 2020. David, who works as a Madison election inspector, shares a story about working with the City Clerk's office on processing absentee ballots. David discusses the impact of the social distancing measures on his music work, including shifting to some virtual music events.
COVID-19 story by David Spies, 2020
Narrator Name: David Spies
Interviewer Name: Danny Atwater
Date of interview: 4/22/2020
[00:00:00] - Start of interview
[00:00:40] - What have the past few weeks looked like for you
[00:01:41] - Pinney grand opening when the governor started to issue capacity limits of gatherings
[00:03:25] - Were you working on site at the clerk’s office or from home
[00:04:14] - What has being a musician been like the last few weeks
[00:05:59] - What has work at the library looked like
[00:08:53] - Were you involved in the spring election; what did that look like; how was that election different from in the past; what concerns did you have
[00:13:57] - What was the overall mood of having an election during a pandemic
[00:15:56] - Do you know of any elections officials that have ended up getting sick since the election
[00:18:35] - What might the national election look like; or is that still too far out to know
[00:20:37] - More detail on being a musician in the time of COVID
[00:24:57] - Thank you
[START OF RECORDING]
Interviewer: My name is Danny Atwater, and I am a library assistant for Madison Public Library. This interview is being recorded as part of the Madison Living History Project: Stories From a Distance series. Today’s date is Wednesday, April 22, 2020, and this interview is being recorded via the video conferencing software Zoom. So let’s begin: please tell us your full name, and what your connection to Madison is.
David Spies: Okay, my name is David Spies, and I am currently a library page for the Pinney Library for Madison Public Libraries. I’m also a chief election inspector, and a musician here in the greater Madison area.
Interviewer: Dave, thanks for joining us today. What have the past few weeks looked like for you?
David Spies: Well, it’s kind of interesting. Being a—having worked for Pinney Library, we were gearing up for our big grand opening. We had been closed for over a year, and everybody was excited. We actually did open on March twelfth, and we had over twelve hundred people there. Now, if you were paying attention to how the virus was going, it was starting to creep in around that time. So I had a little concern, but we took a lot of precautions: we were wiping down everything, keeping social distancing going. But it was—everybody was so excited to have Pinney open, as we were, you know. It’s a beautiful space, and has lots of great features that the—it’s going to really facilitate community in the library. But we only had three days in there, (laughs) because we had—We were there, and after those three days, everything shut down and it became Safer at Home.
Interviewer: That was right during the time that the governor started to issue capacity limits of gatherings, right?
David Spies: Right. We had opened, and it was right before the governor said fifty. So we were able to have the grand opening; the next day, I believe, was when they had fifty-person limit, and we monitored people coming in and kept it to that capacity. I had concerns that people wouldn’t heed the social distancing, and for the most part they did, but it was wise that—It didn’t really matter that we had that because the next day it went to ten, and then that kind of—And we had to basically close up, and the administration took it from there.
Lots of things with the election: right after that kind of closed down I ended up working, helping out the clerk’s office. They had a whole bunch of absentees, the city of Madison. What was the stat? They had over sixty-one thousand absentee ballot requests, since they basically wanted to emphasize to voters that they might be safer by casting a ballot through absentee ballot. So since I had worked for a long time, over fifteen years, for the clerk’s office, being an election official, the library farmed me out to the clerk’s office and I took a Wisconsin Elections Commission training over about three days, to try to know the traits of how to work the system securely. And I spent a good week and a half entering absentee ballot requests so that they could help—and a bunch of us did that, so that we could help the clerk’s staff, enable them to facilitate the large volume.
Interviewer: Were you on site at the clerk’s office, or was this something you were doing from home?
David Spies: I did this remotely from home. Other library staff worked in the clerk’s office helping to organize the physical ballots, but because my chunk was basically checking IDs, making sure they had the proper ID, and it was facilitating that, and just making sure the applications were complete, and clicking the next buttons in the process and passing it on to the clerk’s office so they could finalize the request, and then get the ballot processed. I could do that all from home. But there’s very strict protocols from the Wisconsin Election Commision. They had this process in order before this whole pandemic to do these remotely—I mean, this is a statewide thing, so absentee ballot requests could be done remotely, safely, and securely. So I felt really good about that.
Interviewer: You also mentioned that you’re a musician. What’s that been like the last few weeks?
David Spies: Oh, right before we closed, I was supposed to have one of the busiest Marches and Aprils ever, not just having church gigs for Easter and the Holy Week with the Catholic diocese, but also I was supposed to adjudicate a full band concert festival for WSMA over at the Hamel Center. I was supposed to play several concerts with the Neophonic Jazz Orchestra all throughout the state and also playing with the Racine Symphony and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. All that evaporated right after that March twelfth week. Once the Safer at Home order happened, everything evaporated. It has been very quiet. Several musicians have been doing things online. I hadn’t until just last night. We had—I have a number of different groups that are remarkable, and we’ve been able to put together a project through Zoom, through a group that I had resurrected from about twenty years ago, so that was pretty fine.
Musically, I’ve been picking up other instruments: working on learning electric bass, practicing my own instruments. But a lot of my time’s been doing a lot of online Facetime through work and stuff, so that’s kind of eaten a little bit into that. But we’ve been mainly maintaining social connectivity with our musicians. We made sure we’d had social hangs, and talking about strategizing how we’re going to do this during this time, and coming out of here. So it’s been interesting as a musician. I don’t teach a lot of lessons online.
Interviewer: Let’s dig a little deeper into some of these things. So, for the library, what has work looked like for you?
David Spies: Well, before what work looked like before the election was working for the Elections Commision; doing about twenty hours of that, or fourteen hours a week on that. But then, once the election hit, now it was kind of a little bit of a drift. The library’s finally getting a sense of—at least for the Pages, because there’s so many of us, and trying to figure out how we can best engage with the rest of the mission. I actually landed fairly easily into the engagement team, so I’ve done a number of subgroups through there. I’ve worked for the caregiver project for staff, basically trying to curate resources and provide support for staff during this time. Also working for the snail mail project, which started at Pinney and now has gone RUS wide, where basically we send each other actual mail through the US mail, supporting the US Postal Service during this time. Also working for various—I’m trying—well this project actually. I’ve been doing transcribing for this project; did a transcription I’m finishing editing, and so forth. I really enjoy working on the oral history project; I had previous experience with that.
Also, I’ve been helping out with the Page newsletter; basically helping to distribute that, helping the team. That’s a brand new communication. That’s kind of helped get the pages oriented to what projects are available, how can they fill out their hours most appropriately for them, give them some direction. And I feel that’s been a great project, working with some really great people, and getting that clerk communication out. And so that’s been very helpful. Also helping out with the Zoom communication team a little bit. And we’re trying to figure out how we can use that to better foster community engagement, and also to work as a staff. That’s still in the fledgling stages, but I look forward to working with that in the future. So that’s quite a bit. Also working with the—lots of Zoom meetings. I probably have about six, seven Zoom meetings. I know other people, probably yourself included, have about thirty. (laughs) But it’s the way we have to communicate. We’re safer at home and this is a clear way to engage. You actually get to see somebody’s face, which is really helpful. But yeah, it’s been a very interesting time to work at the library. And I think they’ve been very good at providing opportunities, it’s just getting the opportunities clarified down to the Page level. Permanent staff have a pretty good network built in. The Pages, obviously because there’s so more, and they work such disparate hours, we had to try to get everybody on the same page, and I think that Page newsletter’s really going to help quite a bit.
Interviewer: You talked about helping with the clerk’s office, and doing absentee ballots, and you mentioned that you have been an elections official for, I think you said fifteen years. Were you involved in the spring election? And what did that look like? How was it different than in the past? What concerns did you have at that time?
David Spies: Yeah, the April seventh election was real interesting. Normally I work as a chief election inspector, and I’ve been a chief election inspector for almost ten years, and worked for almost fifteen years as an election official. I’ve worked at the American Family Walbridge location, two wards, wards eleven and seventeen. We have a staff normally of about twenty-seven, morning and afternoon, and then two chief inspectors. When, early on in the election process, we found absolutely all—we were down to just the two chief inspectors, none of the staff were available, so they merged our polling location with Kennedy Elementary, which had a good chunk of their staff, and no chief inspectors. So hey, there we’ve got a nice fit. But then East High School had merged with another location, with Madison Area Technical College, and they didn’t have a chief inspector, and since we had two, I was pulled from Kennedy Elementary last minute, probably like three days before the election, to work with a brand new staff. Actually one of the staff was somebody I had worked with at Pinney, Dominic, and so that was kind of fun. But he was, like, the only person on the staff that I had known out of the forty that I would be working with, and because we had two different wards we had two different tabulators, so it was really challenging. Normally at a polling place you have a single tabulator; it’s easy to keep track of ballots. It’s easy to keep track of the wards, relatively. I mean, we’re pretty strict about how we deal with ballots slips, and ballots, and working with the public.
When I got to East we had to make sure all the staff were complying with COVID protocol, they weren’t available—you know, they were safe to be working in a public health situation when no one could enter the building before that. We had our ballot election at East High School’s new fieldhouse. And, previously at East, elections had been in a different location, and some of the staff that worked for me on that location at East had to go around and find where the tabulators and the express vote machines were located because they were not in our polling place when we arrived at 6 a.m., and we had to start an election at seven. So (laughs) they found the tabulators; we set up tables in the entire gymnasium. Well, we used about two thirds of the gymnasium. We were mindful of trying to maintain enough social distance space for voters, and also make it manageable for people who had accessibility issues: making sure they could physically walk to, say, the registration table or the poll book table or the ballot table, yet there was still the adequate distancing.
City engineering had only set up plastics—they were working for each polling place having one poll book table, one ballot table, and the protective measures with plexiglass for that. So, instead of having multiple people at a poll book table, we were relegated to a very small staff, which made it a very interesting challenge. With only having four hundred in-person voters, but having approximately, in one ward of the two that I worked, fifteen hundred absentee ballots that we would have had to process throughout the day—and actually, that was fifth most in the city—we would get poll workers trying to process three at a time, and then we’d make sure that the physical voters could get through the line. Which meant most of those fifteen hundred ballots had to be processed after 8 p.m. Which is legal, it’s appropriate, but we spent a good three and a half, four hours processing absentee ballots after the polls had closed. And it was a challenge. My day started at 6 a.m. My day ended at 4 a.m., dropping off the paperwork over at the clerk’s office. However, I will say, at the polls it was a beautiful day, so people could line up six feet away outside the perimeter of the gym.
People were engaged; they were excited. They were excited in spite of the fact that they were dealing with it in the middle of a pandemic. And, regardless of everybody’s opinion, they were still there to make sure that their ballot was cast. It was a remarkable situation. A lot of people were working under pressure, and I commend the entire staff. And, in spite of the fact of the pandemic, we made sure that every voter was able to cast a ballot, and have that ballot counted. We, at this polling place, had no provisional ballots cast, so I feel really fortunate about that; that everybody was able to make sure that they cast an anonymous ballot.
Interviewer: You mentioned there was sort of an excitement surrounding voting. What was the overall mood of having an election during a pandemic? And did that mood sort of change during the course of the day?
David Spies: The mood was shared by the staff and the voters. As staff we can’t physically—can’t take a position on the election; we have to carry out the election law, and the election rules, so we had to kind of maintain distance. But we shared the same opinions internally: that having a physical election during a pandemic is endangering public safety in a way that is not really a good idea. I mean, as I said, we had over four hundred people come through the polling place. If a poll worker had been sick with COVID, or any voter had been sick with COVID, imagine the contact tracing that would have to take place. Imagine having to just figure out who might have been exposed, even in a situation such as a very distant, open gymnasium, which—I was blessed. A lot of polling places were considerably smaller than that. But we had a very large gymnasium that we were able to take advantage of and I was grateful for that. People generally were anxious; there was some anger. We had press there to interview people. I mean, they came and saw lines, so they asked permission, I gave permission. They interviewed; they took pictures of the polling place, which they’re very welcome to do. There were some people that had some, like, posters saying that they thought this was ridiculous, unsafe. I think people, overall, felt it was unsafe, but they wanted to make sure that their vote mattered, and they went through with it in spite of the fact that we had all this pandemic going on.
Interviewer: It’s been two weeks since the election now. Do you know of anybody, any elections officials that have ended up getting sick, or anything related to that?
David Spies: I have no personal knowledge of any of my staff, or any staff on the city getting sick. We had masks, we had gloves, and there was plexiglass. So I assume every polling place had equal protective gear. Not quite to the level of, say, Robin Vos, who had probably medical protective gear at his polling place, and it was a drive-through polling place. We had curbside voting. A lot of people took advantage of that. I thought that was very wise. It provided additional measures for protection. I think we’re going to see more of that; we’re going to see more absentee ballot requests in future elections.
Fortunately, I don’t see any repercussions. But, you know, I’ve come through it two weeks and I’ve been okay. I don’t know about other folks in my polling place, because we’re not in regular contact. I’m sure they would have contacted the clerk’s office, and there’s been a mandate that there’s been specific monitoring and tracing of polling place COVID cases because they wanted to see about this. I don’t know how that’s been reported and followed through, if they’re still doing the data on that. There’s been initial reports, but I don’t know who’s been issuing those reports; I don’t know if it’s coming from public health, or Wisconsin health, what the organization is with the state, but we’ll see.
The upshot is I haven’t—I am grateful that I don’t seem to have any symptoms. Part of the symptoms of COVID-19 is you don’t show symptoms, so I’m still a little concerned. What I will say is, after having the Pinney grand opening, and after this election, I self-imposed a two week self-imposed—not a quarantine, but distancing enough. If I went outside I never left my car, and had people put stuff in my trunk. I was very careful to try to limit my potential exposing someone else. And that seems to be the big concern, is that if you may not personally be affected by this virus, you could affect somebody that is in a much different health situation. And I did not want to do that. So I am feeling better. I have masks. I will take advantage of that in the future to make sure that people are safe from my interacting with the world.
Interviewer: The last thing I want to ask about elections: we have a national election coming up. Do you have any sense of what that might look like? Or is that still too far out to know?
David Spies: It’s too far out to know because we actually have an election in between this time. The big election that everybody goes to is the general election in November, but Wisconsin also has an August primary for offices that are other offices; maybe city council, county clerk, maybe other issues. And, as it stands now, the governor has said the August election is going to proceed. I don’t know what the legislature has said about mail-in ballots. I’m not going to get into the politics; I sense it’s highly charged. I would just recommend to anybody personally, if they’re going to vote—and I highly recommend that they do vote—is that they make sure that their registration is up to date through myvote.wi.gov, and that they also request an absentee ballot for the remainder of 2020. That will put their health in a much better situation; they’re taking proactive measures. I think clerk’s offices in general are going to—even though it’s a big workload and a big ask, especially smaller municipalities—to have absentee ballots, because what happens if that smaller town’s election staff gets sick in August and they’re not available for—Well, I mean, who knows? I think they would be available by November, but why take that risk? Why not mitigate that risk? It’s hard to say. I do think there will be an election. I don’t think that’s going away. I don’t think they’re going to postpone it; it’s too important. I do think that a lot of people are going to take a serious look at alternative ways of casting their ballot.
Interviewer: Let’s change gears a little bit and talk about you being a musician in the time of COVID. And you talked a little bit at the beginning about what that’s like; let’s go into a little bit more detail.
David Spies: Well, I’m a professional musician in addition to being a Page. I teach music lessons, but I also, primarily, perform in a myriad of groups: I play in symphony orchestras, small ethnic music ensembles, jazz groups, and I’m a freelance musician. I live, basically, from gig to gig to gig. I have a few regular things that help tie that together, in addition to my day work as well for the library, which I am also heavily invested in. And part of that is being social with your musicians, being able to be at the gig so you can hear about upcoming gigs coming out, supporting your other musicians at their concerts. Nobody’s doing in person concerts anymore; it’s all now Zoom concerts, it’s now Facetime, it’s now Facebook Live streaming concerts. We had, just this past weekend, there was a major concert which, unfortunately, I missed because I was doing other things. That everybody—It was a huge gala, nationwide, and broadcast on three networks. As a musician, should I have watched that? Yes. Was I able to? No. (laughs) But this is how musicians are gigging.
My cousin, who’s a musician down in the Keys, he was a singer/songwriter out of Nashville who writes in the vein of, say, Magaritaville. I can’t think of the—Jimmy Buffet! He worked six, seven nights at bars up and down the Keys, and now he’s basically doing every other day streaming concerts at noon for tips, and that’s how he’s making a living. For me, my first performance that I had was a quasi-live performance. I have a group that we resurrected from about thirty years ago called the Disposable Art Ensemble, which involves, actually, another person from the library, Jeff Brady, and his wife Kia, and then a friend of ours who’s a composer in Boston. We did a Zoom concert last night of a piece, a performance, about an eight-minute performance. And we recorded it to see if it synced, and it actually synced pretty well, so we put it up on the Facebook page. That was my first art of, say, actual live performance with other musicians since this has all begun. And I have a feeling it’s going to be a lot more of that. I know other musicians are doing it. I’m beefing up my technology, and getting better mics so that I can do this. I know people who are teaching at a lot of college lessons have invested in their home studio so that they can do it. I will be doing the same, but I’ve been, as you can tell, I’ve been keeping a lot of plates spinning and balls in the air, juggling, and trying to make sure everything is on target.
I am blessed. I have a job through a library that’s able to keep me going. My wife also is working from home throughout, basically without interruption. So we’re able to maintain this. I know a lot of library Pages where their library job may be their primary source of income; they may be in school, they may be retired, I don’t know their circumstances. We have, I mean, how many Pages in the library? I am concerned for library Pages particularly because their load is hourly; they don’t have benefits, unless they have something outside of their current situation. And I worry about them in the pandemic, and making sure that they’re healthy and safe.
But, as far as musically going, I feel like I’ve been able to keep engaged. I’m learning a new instrument—I’m learning electric bass. It’s nice to be a beginner again. But I’m also keeping, as much as I can, my other instruments up, and listening to a lot of music. Trying to find creative outlets is the key, and we’re going to be doing a lot of innovation between now and when this ends. And I think we’ll continue that, too. I’m finding that, as a plus, this allows me to engage with my colleagues in Boston or—you name it, around the planet. I’ll be able to—as long as they have access to the same technology, and we’re able to agree on a time physically, where we can all be there synchronous, we can do this thing.
Interviewer: Well Dave, I want to thank you for taking the time to share your story with us. I appreciate it.
David Spies: Thank you, Danny.
[END OF RECORDING]