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Wisconsin stay-at-home order protesters vow to rally without permit

Wisconsin stay-at-home order protesters vow to rally without permit

From the The COVID-19 pandemic hits home: Keep up with the latest local news on the coronavirus outbreak series

Organizers of a rally against Wisconsin's stay-at-home order say they are proceeding with the event on Friday, even though their permit to hold it on the grounds of the Capitol was denied.

The planned rally is the latest in a string of events in Wisconsin and across the country, organized and promoted by opponents of orders designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Friday's rally has the potential to be the largest to date in Wisconsin, with more than 3,300 people as of Wednesday saying on Facebook that they are going and 12,000 interested.

Organizer Madison Elmer applied for a permit with the state Department of Administration on April 14. Elmer said Wednesday that she was notified this week that the permit was denied because the gathering would violate the order barring gatherings of any size.

The Capitol building is closed.

Elmer pledged to forge ahead with the rally, despite the possibility of being cited by law enforcement.

"I think our message is bigger than that to be worried about it," Elmer said. "I'm willing to risk citation for everybody else that's speaking to be able to be heard."

A spokeswoman for Capitol Police hasn't returned a message asking what type of enforcement there would be at the event. Madison Police Department spokesman Joel DeSpain said officers from his department would monitor it.

Gov. Tony Evers has said he respects the protesters’ free speech rights, but that he also hopes they maintain a safe distance from one another.

Organizers urged rally participants to be peaceful. But they are leaving it up to each participant to decide whether to follow social distancing guidelines that public health experts say are essential to stopping the spread of the virus.

"Everybody's responsible for their own health," Elmer said. "If they feel somebody else is making them uncomfortable they can move or stand by somebody else."

Elmer said she saw the event as a chance to bring people together, even though the large gathering goes against all public health guidance and the current order against gatherings because of the contagious nature of the virus.

"It's OK to be concerned about people getting sick from a virus," Elmer said. "But it's also OK for people to be concerned about how people are doing mentally, physically, emotionally. It's OK to be concerned about the effect on the economy."

Gov. Tony Evers declared a public health emergency on March 12 and later ordered the closures of bars, restaurants and nonessential businesses to slow the spread of the disease given that there is no vaccine. To date, 242 people have died from the virus and more than 4,600 have tested positive in Wisconsin.

The rally was originally timed to take place on the same day that Evers' first stay-at-home order closing most nonessential businesses in the state was to expire. But last week, Evers' health secretary extended the order until May 26. The move angered Republicans who filed a lawsuit on Tuesday, asking the state's conservative-controlled Supreme Court to block the order.

Elmer said organizers were approached by office holders wishing to speak at the rally, but they were turned down.

"We decided to make it about the people and didn't want to have politics involved," Elmer said. Instead, speakers will include a doctor, nurse, farmers and small business owners, she said.

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