By Michael Martina and Joseph Ax
DETROIT (Reuters) – As sweeping stay-at-home orders in 42 U.S. states to combat the new coronavirus have shuttered businesses, disrupted lives and decimated the economy, some protesters have begun taking to the streets to urge governors to rethink the restrictions.
A few dozen protesters, many with young children, gathered in Virginia’s state capital of Richmond on Thursday in defiance of Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s mandate, the latest in a series of demonstrations this week around the country.
The protests have taken on a partisan tone, often featuring supporters of President Donald Trump, and critiquing governors whose shelter-at-home directives are intended to slow the spread of a pandemic that has killed more than 31,000 across the United States.
On Wednesday, thousands of Michigan residents blocked traffic in Lansing, the state capital, while protesters in Kentucky disrupted Democratic Governor Andy Beshear’s afternoon news briefing on the pandemic, chanting “We want to work!”
States including Utah, North Carolina and Ohio also saw demonstrations this week, and more are planned for the coming days, including in Oregon, Idaho and Texas.
The United States has seen the highest death toll of any country in the pandemic, and public health officials have warned that a premature easing of social distancing orders could exacerbate it.
Trump has repeatedly said he wants to “reopen” the economy as soon as possible and has clashed with governors over whether he can overrule their stay-at-home orders.
In Michigan, where Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer has imposed some of the country’s toughest limits on travel and business, some protesters at “Operation Gridlock” wore campaign hats and waved signs supporting Trump.
Whitmer is considered a top contender to be the running mate of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden when he takes on Trump in November’s general election.
One of the organizers of the demonstration in Lansing, Meshawn Maddock, said she was frustrated that much of the media focused on a handful of protesters who gathered on the steps of the capitol, including militia group members and a man holding a Confederate flag who she said were not part of the rally.
She faulted Whitmer for dismissing the event as a partisan rally instead of engaging with the thousands of residents who Maddock said have legitimate questions about the governor’s stay-at-home order.
“When I’m fighting to (help) a guy who cleans pools or mows lawns, or a women who wants to sell her onion sets or geraniums, I don’t care whether they vote Republican, Democrat, or never vote at all,” Maddock said.
Maddock, 52, is among seven board members of the Republican-aligned Michigan Conservative Coalition who organized the protest. She is also a board member of the pro-Trump political action committee Women for Trump, but said the Trump campaign had no involvement in organizing the protest.
“The Trump campaign has given me no messaging,” she said. “All I know is that I care about Michigan. I’ve lived here my whole life and I want to help workers get back to work.”
She said she had received calls from people in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Virginia and other states asking for advice on planning similar protests.
The political wrangling over the COVID-19 crisis has begun to take on familiar partisan battle lines. Democratic strongholds in dense urban centers such as Seattle and Detroit have been hard hit by the virus, while more Republican-leaning rural communities are struggling with the shuttered economy but have seen fewer cases.
Kenny Clevenger, 30, a realtor in western Michigan’s Allegan County, where only 25 coronavirus cases have been identified, said the shutdown had put him out of business.
“Yes, this needs to be taken seriously, but it’s being taken advantage of,” Clevenger said. “People believe Democrats are attempting to use this to undermine the economy, once again just attacking the president.”
Increasingly, Republican state lawmakers, including some in Texas, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, have begun putting pressure on governors to reopen businesses. Pennsylvania’s Republican-led legislature passed a bill that would loosen restrictions, which Democratic Governor Tom Wolf was expected to veto.
Both Democratic and Republican governors have resisted calls to abandon distancing too quickly. On Thursday, five Democratic governors and two Republican governors in the Midwest, including Whitmer in Michigan, said they would coordinate efforts.
Stephen LaSpina, one of the organizers of a “Stand Up to End the Shutdown” protest set for April 20 at Pennsylvania’s capitol in Harrisburg said that its sole goal was to get the economy running again by May 1.
“We are really welcoming groups of all different backgrounds and demographics,” said LaSpina, who lives near Scranton, and like many others who work in retail, said he had personally been affected by the shutdown. “Anyone who has been impacted by this shutdown in a negative way is welcome and we want them to be heard regardless of their party affiliation.”
(Reporting by Joseph Ax in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts and Michael Martina in Detroit; Additional reporting by Makini Brice in Washington and Julio-Cesar Chavez in Richmond, Virginia; Editing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis)