In a dim sign that social distancing is quickly becoming a full-fledged culture war issue, protesters demanding that state governors lift measures imposed to hinder the spread of the coronavirus pandemic have gathered at statehouses in multiple states this week, fuelled in part by disinformation and egged on by conservative pundits and Fox News hosts.
Per the New York Times, protests have included thousands of people in cars blocking roads in Lansing, Michigan; dozens of people shouting through Capitol building windows in Frankfort, Kentucky; and 100 people violating a stay-at-home order in Raleigh, North Carolina. There have also been protests in Ohio, New York, and on Thursday, Texas and Virginia.
The pandemic, which now stands at over 629,000 confirmed cases across the U.S., has been terrible for the economy. Some 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the past four weeks, which shatters previous records by a massive margin. This has put incredible strain on many U.S. households, particularly for workers in businesses deemed non-essential and who cannot telecommute. Meanwhile, social distancing conditions have had severe consequences that can’t be overlooked, such as a surge in child and domestic abuse, widespread disruption to educational systems, and impacts on mental health. To put it another way: This sucks, and no one likes it.
But the protests are mainly organised by conservative groups that claim social distancing rather than the virus is the root cause of economic distress and that governors are deliberately turning a blind eye to suffering in order to spurn Donald Trump’s calls to re-open the economy. They have also sought to portray defying the orders as a civil rights imperative rather than, say, undermining efforts to contain an illness that has claimed over 32,000 American lives in the past few weeks. Many of the protesters carried signs proclaiming that they won’t comply with stay at home or face mask usage orders, as well as urging the public at large to disobey them.
At times they were accompanied by armed anti-government activists and waved signs saying governors who had resisted Trump’s calls to re-open the economy are Nazis, communists, or both. Common themes, all of them based on scientifically inaccurate information, included that the coronavirus is just a “cold” (over four per cent of confirmed cases have resulted in death), that only the sick or afraid need to stay inside (studies show individuals without symptoms are a major driver of the pandemic), or that people should make their own decisions about whether to socially distance (an argument that doesn’t stand on its own logic, because those who choose not to socially distance can spread the virus to anyone). In a number of jurisdictions, the gatherings would have implicitly violated existing emergency orders.
Here’s a sampling of the protests, starting with one driver flying a sign arguing that because Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer had shut down some stores where American flags happened to be on sale, she is a de facto Hitler:
“You have to disobey,” Idaho Freedom Foundation president Wayne Hoffman told the Times. “You have to do what’s best for your business. You have to do what’s best for your employees and your customers. You have to do what’s best for your livelihood, for your families.”
Protestors are RIGHT outside the governor’s briefing. This is how it sounds from home. And it’s loud and audible. I can only imagine how distracting this is INSIDE the briefing. Protestors saying “we want to work” and “abortion is not essential” @ABC36News pic.twitter.com/EWuDR2vPHX
— Monica Harkins WDRB (@MonicaHarkinstv) April 15, 2020
Fox News pundits have also backed the protests. Host Jeanine Pirro spun a conspiracy theory on Wednesday that “leftists” are intentionally trying to sabotage the economy: “We are free-spirited, free-thinking, we were told everything would be OK, just stay locked down, stay and shelter, and the left is trying to keep us down. Americans want to get back to work and the left is trying to stop that from happening. And they are not stupid, and they are not going to let it happen.” Fox colleague Laura Ingraham ramped up the death-cult energy by insisting that the public is broadly “willing to take the risk of contracting the virus” to stabilise the economy.
Laura Ingraham: "Many are willing to take the risk of contracting the virus" pic.twitter.com/woc5NLGfS3
— Andrew Lawrence (@ndrew_lawrence) April 16, 2020
Vast majorities of Americans say they have avoided public places (78 per cent), small gatherings (84 per cent), and mass transit systems (89 per cent), according to Gallup Polling, though Republicans trail Democrats by double-digit margins on the first two metrics. The available evidence indicates that, contrary to the rhetoric of protesters, coronavirus hasn’t hit the U.S. as hard as it could have specifically because of the social distancing measures that were put in place and that lifting them prematurely would create the conditions for a resurgence. An increasingly popular line of thinking among conservatives is that is an acceptable tradeoff for ending the economic crisis, disregarding the fact that a larger number of deaths might, perhaps, also be bad for the economy.
“What happened yesterday was inexcusable,” Michigan Representative Debbie Dingell told Politico. “People did not have masks. They didn’t have gloves. They did not distance themselves. They had Confederate flags, swastikas. They blocked an ambulance trying to get to a hospital.”
“… Bringing hate and fear into a time that is already full of fear and anxiety is just unacceptable,” she added. “There were people bare-handed, handing candy to children. What they did was to help spread this disease around the state more, most likely — not contribute to the mitigation. And it just made me sad.”
“A small segment of the state is protesting and that’s their right,” Governor Whitner told CNN on Thursday. “The sad part is, though, that the more they’re out and about, the more likely they are to spread Covid-19, and the more likely we’re going to have to take this posture for a longer period of time.”
Republican Governor Mike DeWine tweeted this week that he understood the frustration, but that prematurely ending the restrictions would be worse.
If we want our economy to pick back up, we have to be as deliberate, careful, and thoughtful about getting out of this as we were when we had to make decisions to close things down.
— Governor Mike DeWine (@GovMikeDeWine) April 14, 2020
I share everyone's frustration and anger. I get it. But it's not going to do businesses and employees any good if we get it wrong. If we get it wrong, we'll have a medical mess and a mess in the economy. The best thing we can do is get this right.
— Governor Mike DeWine (@GovMikeDeWine) April 14, 2020
According to Vanity Fair, establishment conservative groups are leaning towards lending their weight to the protesters. The Heritage Foundation’s Stephen Moore, Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Martin, American Legislative Exchange Council exec Lisa Nelson, and FreedomWorks president Adam Brandon are all slated to form a coalition urging restrictions be dropped as soon as possible.
Trump’s plan to revise federal health guidelines to allow for re-openings—seemingly neutered following backlash to his claims of “total” authority over the country during the emergency—largely leaves the decisions up to governors.