They are taking cues from and breathing energy into a grass-roots conservative movement of resistance against government-ordered quarantine measures — one that President Trump appeared to back in several tweets Friday — but are facing defiance within their own party from Republican congressional leaders, governors and fellow lawmakers who warn that a rash reopening could reinvigorate the virus’s spread.
The emerging “open it up” caucus has spoken out on key conservative media platforms, including some of Trump’s favorite programs. In a prime-time Fox News Channel appearance Wednesday, for instance, Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) said that balancing the health of Americans with a functioning economy amid the pandemic was “like choosing between cancer and a heart attack.”
“We’ve got to open this economy. If we don’t, it’s going to collapse,” he told host Tucker Carlson. “If the U.S. economy collapses, the world economy collapses. And trying to burn down the village to save it is foolish. That’s a cold, hard truth.”
But earlier that day, one of Kennedy’s colleagues — one of the most influential health-policy voices on Capitol Hill — sent a much more cautious message. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and a senior appropriator, echoed public health officials in warning that the necessary testing infrastructure simply to allow for a wholesale loosening of restrictions has not been created.
“Without more tests with quick results, it will be difficult to contain this disease and give Americans confidence to go back to work and back to school,” Alexander said.
The Republicans on the front lines of the crisis — state governors — have been similarly divided. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, for instance, cited “positive signs of cautious optimism” Wednesday in announcing that his state was beginning to formulate a reopening plan.
But he warned that “if the recovery is not done in a thoughtful and responsible way, it will not only cost lives, but it will deepen the economic crisis and actually prolong the problems and slow our recovery.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Tex.) took a more aggressive approach Friday, announcing that he would reopen state parks Monday and encourage retail stores to open by the end of the week with social-distancing precautions. Restaurants and movie theaters, he said, could reopen by the end of the month.
The issue, meanwhile, has made it to the congressional campaign trail. Jason Lewis, a former House member running against Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), has launched a “Re-Open Minnesota for Business” RV tour of the state — one that took him Friday to a protest attended by hundreds outside the residence of Democratic Gov. Tim Walz. Few wore masks or kept the recommended six feet of personal distance.
“We all want to do it right, but at some point, you’ve got to balance the social damage and the human damage you would have from waiting till everything is perfect,” Lewis said, adding, “You can’t fight this virus with a second Great Depression.”
As the protest in St. Paul grew, Trump tweeted, “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” Moments later, he sent similar tweets about Michigan and Virginia, where separate protests were taking place.
The election-year calls from conservatives to reopen the U.S. economy, at the cost of the health and lives of Americans, amounts to a different calculation from what many Republicans made in the past.
Notable is that amid the debate over the Affordable Care Act in 2009, conservatives led by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin seized on a proposal to allow Medicare to pay for voluntary counseling on end-of-life treatment options as “death panels” for elderly Americans. That entirely speculative risk helped drive GOP opposition to the Democratic health-care law; now Republicans are brushing aside much more credible risks in their zeal to restart the economy with an eye toward the November elections.
While Democrats have joined calls to plan for a carefully managed reopening, most have been careful to leave key decisions in the hands of public health experts — who so far have warned that the trajectory of the pandemic is still uncertain and that broad stay-at-home orders remain warranted.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) this week criticized as “careless” those Republicans who have pushed for a rapid economic reopening at the risk of additional coronavirus deaths. Any decision to reopen, she told reporters Thursday, should be “science-based.”
“We shouldn’t be having a conversation about how many people is it okay to die for us to open up,” she said.
The partisan division among elected officials reflects the split among Americans generally, according to early political science research on the response to the pandemic. An unpublished paper based on a late-March survey of 3,000 Americans found that one’s party affiliation was “the single most consistent factor” explaining individual responses to the pandemic. Republicans, for instance, were less likely to have engaged in social distancing or more frequent hand-washing.
“You just see a very different world for Republicans in general than we do see for Democrats,” said Thomas B. Pepinsky, a Cornell University professor of government and a co-author of the paper. “Democrats are more worried about it; they believe that the crisis is worse than Republicans believe it is. It’s sort of a clean finding all across the board.”
Some Republican leaders, such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the GOP conference chairwoman, have warned that any attempt at reopening will have to be carefully managed.
McCarthy told reporters Thursday that he supported using technology, such as cellphone tracking data, to help trace the spread of the virus — a practice that some conservative protesters oppose as government overreach.
“We did not ask for this virus, but this virus is here,” McCarthy said. “We did not invite it, but we need to defeat it.”
But rank-and-file GOP lawmakers have been sending a different message — particularly on talk radio programs and other media outlets that cater to conservatives.
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), who is chairman of the House Freedom Caucus and is among 22 House Republicans named to Trump’s “Opening Up America Again” advisory group, criticized Democratic governors on Phoenix radio station KFYI-AM for maintaining tight restrictions.
“They’ve killed their economies, and they want the federal government to bail them out,” he said. “But instead of trying to isolate people who are vulnerable, they want the whole population to be shut down, and that’s killing businesses. That’s why you have 22million people now, at least, who are unemployed.”
Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-Ind.), whose southern Indiana district has seen at least 50 covid-19 deaths, bluntly told WIBC-FM in Indianapolis Tuesday that government should err on the side of getting people back to work, even if it mean more deaths.
“In the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans and the loss of life, of American lives, we have to always choose the latter,” he said.
Hollingsworth later said in a written statement that he believed the trade-off was not quite that stark: “We can use the best of biology and economics to enable as much of the economy to operate as possible while we work to minimize disease transmission.”
Indiana Gov. Eric J. Holcomb (R) has extended the state’s stay-at-home order until May 1. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) had issued a similar order to be in effect through April 30.
Other prominent Republicans have sought to steer a middle course, noting that no one has all the answers and that the decisions of government officials are only part of the response to the pandemic.
“We don’t know nearly as much about these viruses as we would like to know to make all these decisions, but you can’t wait around for a year, either,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the House Appropriations subcommittee on health agencies. “We’re going to have to do the best we can and be prepared to change as we learn new things.”
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said Friday that governors or lawmakers or Trump can make decisions to reopen schools and government offices but that it will be up to each American to heed their directions.
“If I don’t feel comfortable as an individual or if I don’t feel comfortable for my kids,” he said, “I’m not going.”
Seung Min Kim and Paul Kane contributed to this report.