An estimated 1,500 protesters, most of them not wearing face masks and many carrying American flags, gathered at the Wisconsin State Capitol on Friday demanding an end to the wide-ranging shutdown of normal life and business in Wisconsin aimed at curbing the coronavirus pandemic.
A parade of vehicles clogged the Capitol Square, honking at the end of each speech. The 90-minute demonstration featured yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and signs calling on Gov. Tony Evers to reopen Wisconsin, as Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and a handful of other states have begun to do. Similar protests have sprung up in other states.
Mequon resident Alex Leykin said he attended the rally because of what he sees as government overreach. “I think the initial response was excellent. I think the shutdown was warranted,” Leykin said. “We now know what we’re facing. It’s time to let the citizens decide for themselves how and who to protect.”
Largely due to the shutdown, between April 5 and 18, more than 125,000 Wisconsin residents filed initial unemployment claims, according to the state Department of Workforce Development.
Madison has a decades-long history of peaceful protest, and Friday was no exception. Officers in face masks stood quietly at the periphery; Evers had said before the event that he supports protesters’ First Amendment rights and that Capitol Police would not force demonstrators to stand 6 feet apart. Capitol Police said there were no citations or arrests among the crowd, which it estimated at 1,500 people.
The demonstration was organized by a variety of pro-gun and pro-President Donald Trump groups and individuals, including Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine, a Facebook group administered by Ben Dorr, a Minnesota gun rights activist whose family is behind nearly identical protest groups in other states. The group directs members to a website that doubles as the website for the Wisconsin Firearms Coalition, one of a series of Dorr-backed gun groups.
Before its public-facing Facebook event page was taken down earlier this week, organizers from #Reopen Wisconsin advised attendees to decide for themselves whether to honor social distancing guidelines. Most chose not to.
The demonstration was aimed at the decision by the Evers administration to extend the Safer at Home order to May 26. Wisconsin’s Republican legislative leaders have asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to block it, arguing that Andrea Palm, Evers’ health secretary, lacks the legal authority to extend the order beyond Friday.
A national poll released this week found relatively few Americans share the protesters’ sentiment.
Most respondents — 61% — considered government steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 “about right,” 26% felt they don’t go far enough, and 12% said they went “too far,” according to the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey.
While stories of lockdown-induced hardship took center stage, signs of the country’s larger political and culture war were hard to miss. The protest included anti-abortion activists, armed gun rights supporters and demonstrators wearing Trump-branded apparel and driving trucks with Trump signs.
Some messages slammed the scientific establishment, which has been urging limits on people’s movement to curb spread of the virus. Several protesters declined to give their names, saying the news media are biased against them.
Messaging includes misinformation
Speakers and some protesters, including a woman who said she was a nurse, used misleading and unverified information to argue that COVID-19 is less deadly than portrayed by health experts.
Cudahy family physician Dr. Timothy Allen told the crowd he was “very concerned that more people are dying from this quarantine than are dying from COVID. We’re transferring death, at best, from one group to another.”
Allen said he reached that conclusion from an April 17 New England Journal of Medicine article which he claimed stated it was “very clear” the number of deaths from quarantine will equal, or be greater than, the number of deaths from COVID-19. The journal published 10 articles that day on COVID-19. None of them contended that the quarantine would cause deaths on the scale of COVID-19.
A few counter protesters were sprinkled among the audience, scolding people who were crowding the Capitol during the viral pandemic — some more gently than others.
Holding a small sign that read “Please go home,” Dr. Angela Janis, director of psychiatry at University Health Services in Madison, said she was speaking out on behalf of medical professionals — even if her efforts to keep a distance proved difficult.
“I felt it was my duty to make our voices heard,” she said.
Diane Maasz of Waukesha said she believed the Safer at Home order was “unconstitutional.” Maasz said the number of COVID-19 in Wisconsin cases was “negligible” and mostly concentrated in Milwaukee.
On Friday, the state Department of Health Services reported 5,356 infections and 304 deaths from the coronavirus — with 2,431 cases and 154 deaths in Milwaukee County.
“Why should the whole state be shut down for that?” she said.
La Crosse resident Russ Lachman echoed that sentiment. La Crosse County has seen 25 cases and no deaths so far.
“You got two major areas in Wisconsin that are bad … but the rest, especially the western part of the state, northern part of the state, there’s nothing,” Lachman said.
Richard Everett, who described himself as being from the Green Bay area, said the statewide shutdown violates his freedom. He believes the state is exaggerating the danger in an effort to control the population. Brown County, which includes Green Bay, has become a COVID-19 hotspot. Fueled by a spike of 147 cases in recent days tied to the JBS Packerland meat packing plant, the county now has 605 cases.
Several protesters incorrectly compared COVID-19 to the seasonal flu.
Kayla Garny, a high school student from New Berlin, came to the protest without a mask. Garny said people are “exaggerating” the severity of COVID-19.
“I feel like I already had it before. My antibodies are built up. And if I do get it, it will be like the flu,” she said. “The flu is higher in killing people than corona.”
The flu can be deadly. But public health experts note there are treatments, vaccines and widespread immunity among the population to help combat the flu. Those safeguards do not exist for this coronavirus, which in recent months has ripped through facilities including nursing homes, jails and prisons.
One woman wearing a face mask stood in front of a News3Now camera live-streaming the protest. She criticized participants for possibly spreading the virus. “You know what I see here? A bunch of dead people.”
Reopen — but keep your distance
Some protesters had more nuanced messages. Carolyn Warnke of Mukwonago was wearing a face mask with “Open WI” written across it. She has asthma and was staying away from the crowd.
“We can still get back to work,” she said, “and social distance.”
Warnke said it was “hard to know what’s true” when the predicted number of deaths and cases have not come to pass in Wisconsin. State officials say those forecasts were based on the assumption that Wisconsin took no action to curb the pandemic.
Teri King, who lives outside of Chicago, was selling Trump-branded hats and T-shirts. King, who said she gives a cut of her proceeds to pro-police groups, said she and a friend plan to attend an upcoming rally in Springfield to open up Illinois.
“I believe in social distancing. I also believe we should be wearing masks,” said King, who pulled up her scarf with a smirk when reminded it was not covering her face. “But these businesses are hurting.”
Health care workers concerned
On Thursday night, hours before the rally, nurses and other health care workers organized by SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin placed 1,300 candles on the steps of the Capitol to represent the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 so far in Wisconsin.
Nurse Ani Weaver read a statement asking people to stay home “not just for your lives and your families but out of consideration for essential workers who are risking their lives to keep the country running,” including grocery store clerks, mass transit drivers and health care and nursing home workers.
In interviews, other health care workers decried the protest. Kathy Hintz works the night shift cleaning hospital rooms in Appleton where COVID-19 patients have been treated.
Hintz said in addition to increased use of personal protective equipment, she has separated herself from her grandchildren to keep them safe. Hintz said she was “in shock” about the protest but does not take it personally.
“If they had to go through what we go through, they would have a different perspective.”
Tami Burns is a nurse at a dialysis clinic in Madison. In an interview Friday morning, Burns described the lengths to which she goes to protect her family from transmission, including having her son stay full-time with his father. Given her experiences, Burns said, it is hard not to take the protests personally.
“They have the right to protest, but they don’t have a right to put other people’s lives at risk,” Burns said. “And that’s what they’re doing by choosing this forum.”
Clergy speak out
Some Wisconsin clergy members also decried the gathering. In a press call Wednesday, the Rev. Marcus Allen, president of the African American Council of Churches, called protests in Brookfield and Madison to reopen the state “sad” and “sickening.”
Allen pointed to data showing African-Americans are disproportionately dying from COVID-19 complications. He said his mother in Milwaukee had survived COVID-19.
The Rev. Greg Lewis, pastor of St. Gabriel Church of God in Christ in Milwaukee, said he initially did not want to dignify the protests with a response but felt compelled to because of the seriousness of the pandemic.
“I almost died of that virus,” said Lewis, detailing his hospital ordeal with COVID-19. “I know for a fact that that virus is no joke, and it’s lethal.”
Lewis said he was sympathetic to people who are out of work. But, Lewis said, staying home is keeping the pandemic at bay. And opening up too soon could be deadly — a point made by the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week.
“What we’ve seen so far could be minor. What could be coming next,” Lewis said, “could be astronomical.”
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Bram Sable-Smith and Shawn Johnson of WPR, Parker Schorr of the Cap Times and Jim Malewitz and Dee J. Hall of Wisconsin Watch contributed to this story. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.