Hundreds of opponents of Michigan’s social distancing measures rallied in their cars in the state capital on Wednesday, snarling traffic and even blocking a hospital entrance in a protest against an executive order intended to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus in the state.
“The cars were blocking one of our hospitals, so an ambulance literally wasn’t able to get into the bay for ten minutes,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose statewide stay-at-home order provoked the ire of many right-wingers and Trump supporters. The order banned residents from traveling to second homes, closed non-essential businesses, and limited outdoor activities in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.
“This is the kind of behavior that extends the needs for stay-at-home orders,” Whitmer said in a television interview Wednesday. “The worst thing that could have happened today.”
One Whitmer adviser likened the Lansing, Michigan, rally outside the Capitol—dubbed “Operation Gridlock” on a Facebook invitation—to a MAGA rally, noting the preponderance of signs likening Whitmer to a Nazi, as well as semiautomatic rifles, Confederate battle flags, and in at least one case, a Confederate battle flag emblazoned with the image of a semiautomatic rifle. (Michigan, of course, was a Union state.)
Rallygoers fumed at what they see as inconsistencies in the stay-at-home order, like a prohibition on motor-powered boats that still allows for the use of sailboats or canoes.
“We can’t take our boats on the water if they have an engine,” Rosanne Ponkowski, one of the protest’s organizers, told The Daily Beast before the event. “We can’t buy paint and go paint our house.”
Anger over the expansive executive order was rooted partially in its directive that Michiganders limit inter-state travel and close the home-improvement sections of big box stores, which are under order to limit customer access to non-essential departments.
Similar orders—and, in all likelihood, similar levels of stir-craziness—have sparked several protest movements in other states across the country as residents demand that governors “reopen” their states, public safety be damned.
“When it’s my time to go, God’s going to call me home,” said Ashley Smith, cofounder of “ReopenNC,” a conservative group which seeks the easing of social restrictions in North Carolina. “I think that to live is inherently to take risks. I’m not concerned about this virus any more than I am about the flu.”
But those concerns were compounded in Michigan by increasingly baseless accusations that a ban on gardening supplies meant that Michigan residents could not continue growing their own food, and that the closure of the gardening section of Costco amounted to a ban on buying American flags.
Conservative media figures and elected officials, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Meghan McCain and the former campaign manager for Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James, credulously spread those rumors—although most recanted after the governor published a “Frequently Asked Questions” addendum to the executive order clarifying that it did not ban, for instance, the sale of children’s car seats.
In March, President Donald Trump criticized Whitmer—whom he called “the young… a woman governor”—and tweeted that while “I love Michigan… your Governor, Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer is way in over her head, she doesn't have a clue. Likes blaming everyone for her own ineptitude! #MAGA”
Whitmer has largely responded to the intense criticism and unfounded rumors with calmness and reasoned positivity. When Sen. Ted Cruz retweeted a post falsely alleging that the governor had herself broken social distancing guidelines when she signed the executive order, her official account responded that “I know you would never intentionally mislead the public during a pandemic, so I’m hopeful you’ll correct this mistake as soon as possible,” wishing him a “happy Easter from Michigan” with a waving-hand emoji.
As the protesters raged outside of the Capitol—flouting social-distancing guidelines and the Facebook invitation for Operation Gridlock by assembling on the building’s front staircase—Whitmer’s office responded that while the protest could continue, it had to do so safely.
“Everyone has a right to protest and speak up. We recognize that some people are angry and frustrated, and that’s OK. The Governor will always defend everyone’s rights to free speech,” said Bobby Leddy, Whitmer’s deputy press secretary. “We just ask those who choose to protest these orders to do so in a manner that doesn’t put their health or the health of our first responders at risk.”
“It was essentially a political rally,” Whitmer said on MSNBC on Wednesday night, one that “flies in the face of all of the science, all of the best practices, and the stay-at-home order that was issued.”
While Whitmer noted that the average Michigander is “doing the right thing” in preventing the spread of the virus—which has hit Michigan harder than any state outside of the Northeast—those who assembled, she said, were in flagrant violation of social-distancing guidelines. Protesters were filmed congregating in tight groups without masks, handing out candy to children with bare hands, and brandishing weapons.
“It was a political rally that is going to endanger peoples’ lives,” Whitmer said, “because this is precisely how COVID-19 spreads.”
Prominent conservatives said the blatant violation of guidelines intended to halt more infections of a virus that has claimed more than 27,000 American lives was, ultimately, Whitmer’s fault.
“This is what happens when you play dictator for the day,” tweeted Donald Trump, Jr., the president’s son. “Maybe if Gov. Whitmer focused more on #Michigan and less on running for VP she could get much better results for her great constituents.”
Whitmer herself had welcomed the opprobrium before the event, telling a local ABC News affiliate that “it’s OK to be frustrated, it’s OK to be angry.”
“If it makes you feel better to direct it at me, that’s OK, too,” Whitmer said. “I’ve got thick skin.”