Protesters at state capitols across the country this week expressed their deep frustration with the stay-at-home orders that are meant to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, pushing a message that is rapidly coalescing among the nation’s conservatives: Reopen the country.
“LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Trump tweeted. “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” he continued. “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
Trump’s tweets come as the right-wing media has amplified the protests and conservative groups have formed plans to jointly press for a reopening of the economy. The groups include several veterans of the tea party era, activism that was powered by a network of right-wing and corporate financiers interested in reducing taxes and regulations on industry.
Protesters railed against policies that call for nonessential businesses and schools to be closed, restaurants limited to carryout service and people to stay largely in their homes except for emergencies. They argue that the nation has sacrificed the economy, with unemployment at record levels, and people have upended their lives for something many do not see as an existential threat to society.
“I think there’s a boiling point that has been reached and exceeded,” said Stephen Moore, a conservative economist. Moore is a member of both the White House council to reopen the country and a coalition of conservative leaders and activists seeking to push government officials to relax stay-at-home orders.
“I call these people the modern-day Rosa Parks — they are protesting against injustice and a loss of liberties,” Moore said of the protesters.
Moore said the protests have been spontaneous and organized at the local level, but he said his group has been offering them advice and legal support should protesters be arrested and prosecuted.
The protests come as governors in Texas, Minnesota and Vermont on Friday announced dates to ease certain restrictions.
In Michigan, hundreds of people clogged traffic in cars or marched in the snow to protest against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), who last week added additional restrictions to the state’s stay-at-home order. Protesters waved American flags, Trump flags and an occasional Confederate flag. Many screamed “Lock her up!” and “We will not comply!”
Protest leaders said the demonstrations evolved organically into a collective call for rolling back emergency measures that they think infringe on personal freedoms and further decimate the economy.
“I feel terrible about the lives lost, but at some point we have to say ‘Mission accomplished’ and come up with the next phase of this that doesn’t have us continuously locked inside our homes,” said Matthew Seely of the Michigan Conservative Coalition, which organized the protests.
Michigan has been one of the states hit hardest by the virus, with more than 30,000 confirmed cases and over 2,200 deaths.
State incorporation records show the nonprofit coalition also goes by another name: Michigan Trump Republicans. The group’s president, Rosanne Ponkowski, identified herself as a homemaker last year in federal campaign finance records. But the group’s other directors are longtime GOP insiders, according to state records. They include Marian Sheridan, the state Republican Party’s vice chair of “grass roots” efforts.
Sheridan has “worked in Michigan grass roots for the last 10 years” and started her political career as a tea party leader and organizer, according to the state GOP’s website.
Sheridan, Ponkowski and the Michigan Republican Party did not respond to messages.
Social media accounts show that part of the group’s goal was to damage Whitmer. A day after the protest, the Michigan Trump Republicans posted a conservative opinion writer’s column on its Facebook page. The column, which appeared in The Washington Post, asserted that the protest had all but killed Whitmer’s chances to be vice president.
“Mission accomplished?” the group wrote above the link to the column.
Nicole Hemmer, a scholar at Columbia University and author of “Messengers of the Right,” about the right-wing media, said the anti-government signage and argument that stay-at-home orders infringe on personal liberty hark back to a prior conservative movement.
“In my mind it looks a lot like the tea party,” she said. “It almost seems like an excuse for getting out and rallying against politicians they oppose.”
Some politicians believe Trump’s egging on of the protesters is dangerous.
“The president is fomenting domestic rebellion and spreading lies even while his own administration says the virus is real and is deadly and that we have a long way to go before restrictions can be lifted,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D). A protest against his stay-at-home order, which lifts May 5, is scheduled in Olympia this weekend.
Tyler Miller, who organized the Washington state protest, said he is urging attendees to wear personal protective equipment, practice physical distancing and not attend if they are in a high-risk category or feeling sick.
Despite the growing number of protests, polling shows the vast majority of Americans support stay-at-home orders. Eighty-one percent of respondents in an April 8 Quinnipiac University poll said they would support a national stay-at-home order. Sixty-eight percent of Republicans queried said they would support a nationwide order to stay in their homes, along with 95 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Independents. In a Pew Research Center survey, 66 percent of respondents said they are more concerned that restrictions would be lifted too quickly, as opposed to not quickly enough. Republicans in the survey were essentially split on the question.
Public health experts have said any premature easing of stay-at-home orders could lead to a second wave of pandemic, erasing the social distancing progress, returning the population to quarantine, deepening the economic turmoil and resulting in more lives lost.
Some said they are protesting mainly because of the severe economic impact caused by the virus. More than 22 million people have filed for unemployment since Trump declared a national emergency last month.
In Ohio, where 100 protesters did not practice social distancing as they pushed up against the glass doors of the statehouse this week, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) announced he was assembling plans to safely reopen the economy ahead of the expiration of his stay-at-home order May 1. DeWine and Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health, have said reopening will come in phases.
State Sen. Andrew Brenner (R) said DeWine was right to close schools and businesses early, decisions that Brenner said are bringing the state closer to reopening.
Brenner’s district near Columbus is one of the fastest-growing areas of the state. He said the pandemic has wiped out its economic gains.
“People are calling me crying because they've lost their jobs, and the government stimulus checks are not going to keep people going long,” Brenner said, adding more people will need government assistance. “The next thing that’s going to happen is that revenue needed to maintain vital services, such as education and Medicaid, will plummet.”
Business owners in Oklahoma and Ohio have filed lawsuits, bemoaning the economic costs of sheltering in place. In Michigan, Michael Lackomar called a lawyer after a run-in with state troopers.
Lackomar said he and his wife have left their home in the Detroit suburbs for their solitary second home on the shores of Lake Huron. But when Lackomar visited this week, two state troopers pounded on the door.
“You know you’re not supposed to be here,” Lackomar recalled the trooper saying as he explained Whitmer’s new order, which bans people from traveling between a primary residence and a vacation home. The troopers told the couple to stay put or risk a $1,000 fine or misdemeanor charge.
The interaction led Lackomar to rant on Facebook and then contact a lawyer.
“Sometimes you feel like you have no voice against the big monolithic government,” said Lackomar, who is one of several Michigan residents suing Whitmer. “They are trying to contain the infection, but there is a line. I’m sorry, my rights as an individual don’t always take a back seat to someone else’s fears.”
Lackomar’s lawyer, David Helm, is arguing in federal court that the government owes his clients compensation because regulations have rendered their properties and businesses useless. The statewide restrictions, he said, violate property and due process rights because most of Michigan’s coronavirus cases are limited to two hard-hit counties in metro Detroit.
“The entire state of Michigan is on house arrest. That’s a problem,” said Helm, who has heard from other firms contemplating class-action suits in Tennessee and Oregon. “We know there is a pandemic and government action needs to take place, but you have to tailor those actions to minimize constitutional infringements. If left unchecked, it can lead to more dramatic regulations down the road. We don’t want the governor to be in a position to make precedent here. We want the court to set precedent.”
Whitmer’s office did not return a request for comment on the lawsuits.
In a news conference this week, Whitmer said she understands why people are upset about the stay-at-home order.
“It’s OK to be frustrated. It’s OK to be angry,” Whitmer said, adding it would be fine if people directed their feelings at her. “I’ve got thick skin and I’m always going to defend your right to free speech.”
In states including North Carolina, activists are organizing through closed Facebook groups that have grown quickly.
Ashley Smith, the founder of ReOpenNC, believes stay-at-home orders are not the right way to fight the virus.
“We’ve dropped an atomic bomb on a knife fight,” she said. “Yes, there are risks, but the Constitution does not guarantee us a risk-free existence.”
Michael Morgan of Westfield, N.C., who has been battling cancer for three years, sent the group a private message to try to understand its point of view. He said he was blocked and started his own group: Stay Home N.C. It now also has thousands of members. He does not believe economic concerns should dictate when stay-at-home orders are lifted.
“This has become a battle between money and life. And people really value their money,” Morgan said. “I completely understand not being able to pay your bills and the pain of losing a business, but wouldn’t you rather be alive? Believe me, we will work through this.”
David Weigel and Robert Costa in Washington and Gregory Scruggs in Seattle contributed to this report.
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