A protest movement is taking hold targeting states that have extended social-distancing rules, closed schools, and restricted access to large religious gatherings. And it’s being fed by loyalists and political allies of President Donald Trump.
At issue are seemingly contradictory directives from Trump—who said on Tuesday that his team was in the process of drafting new guidelines that would allow some states to bring critical industries back to work, possibly this month—and public health officials and many governors, who have urged people to stay home as the number of coronavirus-related deaths continue to rise.
The tension has prompted Republican lawmakers and supporters of the president to publicly call for Americans to defy their local orders, claiming they infringe on constitutional rights. On Monday, Richard Grenell, acting director of the Office of National Intelligence and the U.S. ambassador to Germany, posted a photo of the Bill of Rights on Instagram with a title “Signed Permission Slip to Leave Your House.” Below the post, in the caption, Grenell wrote, “Love this!” A reporter tweeted the post after its publishing saying, “Seems the top US intelligence chief ADNI @RichardGrenell isn’t a fan of the stay at home orders.” Grenell responded, “‘Seems’ Grenell is a fan of the Constitution to me.”
Grenell’s post foreshadows a major political battle line on the horizon. Republican operatives say the burgeoning movement against coronavirus restrictions could end up stressing an already heavily stressed body politic even further, with conservative activists challenging their governors in increasingly dramatic fashion. Former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), who is a close White House ally, said he felt the country was nearing a tipping point.
“I think it could be a combination of politics, misinformation, economic hardship, emotion/anxiety, and well intentioned civil disobedience,” Kingston wrote. “The liquor stores and dispensaries are open but I can’t buy gun!”
The calls for defiance have grown so much so this week that officials inside the Trump administration coronavirus task force have begun discussing how to reconcile the growing discomfort of the president and his allies while also ensuring more Americans do not further contract the virus. One official told The Daily Beast that there is concern among task force officials that once they loosen the social-distancing guidelines for some portions of the country, Americans living in hot-spot areas will follow suit even if they’ve been asked to remain at home.
Already, protests against social-distancing guidelines, stay-at-home orders, and other public safety measures have been bubbling up in states across the country. In Idaho, anti-government activists encouraged gatherings around Easter. Conservative activists in Oklahoma are planning a “get back to work” rally at their state capitol on Wednesday. Roughly 75 protesters met outside the Ohio statehouse on Monday to protest restrictions, with several carrying the “Don’t Tread on Me” flags that became ubiquitous at Tea Party rallies.
On Tuesday, meanwhile, about 100 people rallied against the restrictions in Raleigh, North Carolina, with one protester arrested.
The North Carolina opposition has organized around “ReopenNC,” a Facebook group with more than 25,000 members. Ashley Smith, a co-founder of the group, started ReopenNC with two friends after hearing a rumor that Gov. Roy Cooper (D) planned to extend the state’s stay-at-home order through June. It appears that rumor was wrong—the order is still set to expire on April 19. But beyond that hiccup, epidemiologists and other public health experts have cautioned that the national economy can’t begin to recover without a massive increase in testing and infection tracing capabilities. Nevertheless, Smith simply wants businesses to open again.
“When it’s my time to go, God’s going to call me home,” Smith said. “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.”
Smith supports Trump’s recent insinuation that he may forcibly reopen states whose governors continue to support stay-at-home orders, though it’s not clear that Trump actually has the power to do any such thing. “We are not promised a pathogen-free existence,” Smith said. “We do not have a constitutional right to not get a virus.”
In Michigan, backlash to government-authored safety guidelines and measures may be the most pronounced. On Wednesday, critics of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s (D) coronavirus restrictions rallied on the steps state capital—while others socially distanced within their cars. In a protest dubbed “Operation Gridlock,” they aim to lock down whatever traffic remains in the capital city of Lansing with their vehicles.
“That’s basically what she’s done to our state: gridlock us,” Rosanne Ponkowski, one of the rally’s organizers, said of Whitmer.
“We're tired of not being able to buy the things we need, go to hairdresser’s, get our hair done,” one protester, Brenda Esman, told Fox News.
Ponkowski, the president of the pro-Trump Michigan Conservative Coalition, said she got the idea for a protest while sitting at home under the stay-at-home order. Ponkowski was also frustrated after hearing from a relative in Florida about that state’s comparatively looser coronavirus rules.
“We were sitting around wondering what to do, because our state is going down the toilet,” Ponkowski said.
The Lansing protest has been embraced on “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine,” a growing Facebook group with more than 320,000 members. Like other critics of the current social distancing requirements, Ponkowski points to the national coronavirus death rates, which have failed to meet the direst predictions, as proof that it’s time to relax stay-at-home orders.
“They were predicting huge numbers of people falling ill and dying, and that wasn’t the case,” Ponkowski said.
The open acts of defiance aren’t just being embraced by fringe activists mobilized through social media posts. Elected officials have called for pushing aside public safety experts in the name of remedying “societal fallout.” In Texas, the House Freedom Caucus has called on the governor to lift the state's stay-at-home order. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) scoffed at restrictions other states had placed on activities such as going to beaches and church—while leaving the suggestion that others should do the same. And a top aide to Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said it was “time to not comply” with the commonwealth’s governor, Andy Beshear, over a plan to record and quarantine churchgoers during Easter Sunday.
The public demonstrations of frustration and resistance have begun to draw parallels to the Tea Party protests that popped up during the early months of Barack Obama’s presidency. The circumstances are far different—a reactionary movement to bank bailouts and the first African-American president versus resentment towards strict public health guidelines. But the theme of individualism versus statism is a through line that GOP operatives believe could be similarly galvanizing on the right.
“There is a natural tension between the government taking actions to protect public safety and citizens feeling like their rights are being limited,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP operative in Texas. “We've seen it on the religious services aspect of this. There are questions about the police power ability of the government to begin with and whether any of these requirements that local, state, and municipal govts are even enforceable. I think there is a disconnect between the way the government is looking at this and the way individuals are looking at this.”