Some 1,500 protesters amassed on the state Capitol grounds Friday to demand an end to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ COVID-19-related stay-at-home order, which many attendees criticized for infringing on their personal freedoms and crippling the state economy.
Protesters toted signs ranging from “Quarantine Tony Evers” to “Reopen Wisconsin,” waved American and Gadsden “Don’t tread on me” flags, and broke into chants including “U.S.A.” and “Bring back Scott,” a reference to former Republican Gov. Scott Walker — all while a convoy of vehicles circled the Capitol as part of the demonstration.
Some in the crowd carried firearms, some wore protective masks, and others wore attire or carried signs supporting President Donald Trump.
Protesters at the gathering, which health experts unequivocally warned would increase the risk of spreading the respiratory disease, brushed off the necessity of the state’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts, downplayed the potential for overwhelming hospitals with cases, and said the state’s efforts were tyrannical and unnecessarily crushing small businesses and the economy.
According to Capitol Police, about 1,500 people gathered at the event and there were no arrests or citations issued.
“I’m here to stand for balance, that all lives in Wisconsin matter. That we need to be open so the economy can function, so we can care for the sick people,” Green Bay resident Tina Hollenbeck said, holding a sign that read, “Real Science, Real Data, Real Compassion.”
“Let us take personal responsibility, let us think about our fellow mankind and we will. But just being locked down, that has made a lot of people angry and causing push-back unnecessarily,” said Hollenbeck, a home-school teacher who said she identities as a constitutional libertarian.
David and Joyce Raymaker traveled from Lincoln County to protest Evers’ extension of the order, which requires nonessential businesses to remain closed through May 26.
“We gave them 30 days to slow the curve,” Joyce Raymaker said. “If all the essential businesses can remain open with precautions, then the small businesses should be able to stay open. We don’t have to close down the whole economy.”
The event also brought out some counter-protesters, including Madison psychiatrist Angela Janis, who held a sign that read “Please go home.”
“Everybody has a part to play in this, and that includes people staying home so we can crush this thing together,” Janis said. “I’m just asking people to stop and think about the medical providers who are out there working and why we’re doing this in the first place.”
The demonstration was the latest mass gathering across the country by opponents of stay-at-home orders that have been recommended by the Trump administration and put in place by most states to combat the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 50,000 people in the United States.
A national Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted April 17-19 among 1,597 American adults found 60% of respondents disagreed with such protesters, while 22% supported them. It also found 71% say stay-at-home orders should be lifted when public health officials are fully able to test and trace new cases and outbreaks, compared with 29% who said it should open as soon as possible to prevent further economic damage. The margin of error was about +/-3 percentage points.
In an online counter-protest, Mary Milton, a frontline nurse in Milwaukee, urged people to follow the stay-at-home order, warning that the disease is brutal and anyone is susceptible to it. She said patients suffering from the virus may suffer lifelong effects, testing is not accurate enough, and hospitals don’t have enough personal protective equipment for people to think they can go about as they wish.
“It’s a terrible disease,” Milton said. “I have seen these patients, they are suffering, I have never seen such suffering. Shelter in place is important. If you care about your family, this is something you will do, if you care about your neighbor, the elderly woman down the street, even the child.”
Democrats tore into Trump and Wisconsin’s Republican leaders on Friday for not doing enough to discourage protesters.
Capitol Police denied a permit for the event, which organizers estimated about 1,000 people would attend.
Speaking to the crowd, Madison Elmer, one of the event’s organizers, said those present want to make their own choice when it comes to taking safety precautions or closing their businesses, rather than have a government mandate.
“You’re being told to sit down and shut up because your opinion doesn’t matter,” Elmer said. “You’re being told to listen to the professionals, but you know what, you shouldn’t ever stop questioning the professionals. They don’t live your life … they did not include you in this decision.”
Another speaker at Friday’s rally lamented Evers’ order closing down businesses the state considers non-essential. She said the order has favored big-box stores over those owned by Wisconsin families.
“Society determines what essential businesses are, not our government,” the speaker said, adding that it should be up to individuals to decide where and how they want to shop. Protesters bemoaned the governor’s order for impeding their freedoms to go about daily activities if they want to, despite warnings that a second wave of the novel coronavirus could strike later in the year, killing far more people.
Another speaker, who had been hospitalized but tested negative for COVID-19, questioned whether the state was inflating the number of positive cases. As of Friday more than 5,300 people have tested positive and 262 have died, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
Republican leaders have mostly avoided criticizing the event, which is similar to recent protests in other states driven by conservative groups. But while some Democratic leaders have criticized the event citing the well-established health risks, Evers has characterized it as people exercising their First Amendment rights.
Ben Wikler, chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, warned that gathering to protest is dangerous, and said Trump and Wisconsin Republicans, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, are partly responsible for not doing enough to discourage attendance.
“Trump, Robin Vos and Wisconsin Republicans bear profound responsibility for the protest taking place today and for the infections that will result from them,” Wikler said in a call with reporters. “They believe they can benefit politically from a protest movement that tries to ignore the dangerous science of coronavirus’ spread.”
State Journal reporter Elizabeth Beyer contributed to this report.
Photos: Hundreds of protesters support revoking Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order