Thousands protest in Michigan against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order

A political divide over the response to the coronavirus pandemic was on stark display Wednesday in Lansing, Michigan, where about 3,000 conservative demonstrators rallied against the Democratic governor’s policies.

“Operation Gridlock” wasn’t intended to go beyond people driving around and honking their horns in opposition to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive stay-at-home order, organizers say, but some drivers got out of their cars and the event took on a flavor of a Trump rally, with some demonstrators, including members of militia groups, protesting close together while chanting slogans like “lock her up,” referencing the governor. Some attendees wore Make America Great Again hats and waved Confederate flags, and others carried AK-47s on the steps of the state capitol.

Whitmer’s handling of the coronavirus receives a favorable review from 71 percent of Michigan residents. Nationally, Whitmer has received some attention as a potential vice presidential pick for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. The state has been one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. As of the morning of April 16, there were more than 28,000 confirmed cases in the state, resulting in over 1,900 deaths — the third most in the country. Last week, Whitmer responded by extending the state’s stay-at-home order through April 30, but she has also joined a coalition of Midwestern governors working together to determine an end to stay-at-home restrictions.

But a vocal subset of conservatives and libertarians have started to rebel, led in part by the Michigan Conservative Coalition. MCC spokesperson Matt Seely told Vox that the extension of the stay-at-home order made many Michiganders “nuts.”

Seely, who denounced the “jackasses” who brought weapons to the event, said the movement isn’t about partisanship. “We would have protested this executive order if it was an independent governor or a Republican governor. Party has nothing to do with this system, out of principle and our civil liberties.”

Still, surveys show that national attitudes about the government response to coronavirus are polarized around party ID and political attitudes. Morning Consult found that most Americans were practicing some form of social distancing in March, with Republican men being the least likely to say they were doing so. And the symbiotic relationship between President Trump and Fox News has contributed to this difference in attitudes. A recent study of Fox viewers found they reported being more skeptical of mainstream media reports about the virus and less likely to participate in social distancing.

Michigan is seeing the challenges of getting public buy-in for social distancing policies firsthand, and Trump’s messaging on Fox and in daily briefings mirror the divide. He’s consistently downplayed the pandemic and attempted to pin the blame on governors, particularly those of blue states (including Whitmer). And while those Vox spoke with in Michigan said that they understood how serious the coronavirus pandemic was, his message is clearly resonating with some conservatives and having a real-world effect on their attitudes and actions — potentially putting them and others at risk.

A confusing crackdown on home improvement supplies was a major factor

Conservatives in Michigan were already growing agitated with Whitmer’s aggressive response to the virus when she took another step that seemed nonsensical: Big-box hardware stores (larger than 50,000 square feet) were told they must close off aisles dedicated to paint supplies and lawn care until the end of April. They can still sell other goods deemed essential. “If you’re not buying food or medicine or other essential items, you should not be going to the store,” Whitmer said in a press conference earlier this month.

Some rally attendees complained to Fox News that Whitmer’s order seemed arbitrary. They can’t buy lawn fertilizer from Home Depot, visit siblings, or get their hair done, but lottery tickets are still for sale and liquor stores remain open. Seely told Vox, “Do you want people to leave their homes and risk infecting themselves and other people to get a lottery ticket? But I can’t go to the hardware store and buy grass seed for my lawn, buy a gallon of paint so that I can find myself doing a home project so I don’t go absolutely insane being locked at home. I mean, none of that makes any sense.”

MCC president Roseanne Ponkowski told Vox that on her way to Lansing, some rally attendees saw Michigan Department of Transportation workers planting trees and flowers along the highway and in the capitol. “And yet private businesses can’t do that. … So it’s like there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason.” She added, “We have a lot of jobs that just by the nature of the work are social distancing. The man cutting your grass on the riding lawnmower is social distancing. Why can’t he be working?”

Republicans in the state, especially those in the more rural northwestern areas, share the frustration. The Guardian explains:

Four sheriffs in the north-western Lower Peninsula called Whitmer’s orders a “vague framework of emergency laws” that are frustrating citizens. The Leelanau county sheriff, Mike Borkovich, said people did not understand why they could not take a child fishing in a motorboat but they could use a kayak.

“We’re trying to keep the peace with people … The economy is coming apart in northern Michigan. People are upset,” Borkovich told the Associated Press. “People are frantic to get back to work. They have been very edgy.”

Part of the reason for the skepticism among conservatives is also about geography. The metro Detroit area, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, has been hit much harder by the pandemic than the rest of the far-redder state. For example, in Iron County, on the state’s upper peninsula, there have been zero confirmed cases of coronavirus thus far. In Wayne County, which includes Detroit, there have been more than 12,500 confirmed cases.

Public health officials have said that social distancing rules are important even if a region hasn’t seen very many cases. Because the virus’s incubation period can be up to 14 days, there is a lag between when the virus starts spreading and when cases begin to emerge.

And members of the MCC were notably dubious about coronavirus just a few weeks ago — largely following rhetoric stemming from the White House. Early in the pandemic, members of the MCC posted on Facebook that Democrats were “cheerleaders” for coronavirus and reshared a Breitbart article arguing that the coronavirus threat was being overstated. One MCC leader vowed to continue holding mass events as recently as a month ago.

Whitmer isn’t changing her policies

If the goal of Wednesday’s demonstration was to persuade Whitmer to reconsider the stay-at-home order, it doesn’t appear to have succeeded. Later Wednesday, the governor spoke to MSNBC and said “the sad irony here is that the protest was that they don’t like being in this stay-at-home order, and they may have just created a need to lengthen it, which is something we’re trying to avoid at all costs.

“We know that this demonstration is going to come at a cost to people’s health,” Whitmer added. “We know that when people gather that way without masks … that’s how Covid-19 spreads.”

What remains to be seen, however, is whether the demonstration will persuade the Republicans that control Michigan’s legislature to block Whitmer’s efforts to continue the states of emergency and disaster that will expire at the end of the month unless they are extended by lawmakers.

Trump is pinning the disaster on governors — including Whitmer

Whitmer, like other Democratic governors, has been critical of the federal government’s coronavirus response. She’s become a particularly pronounced target of abuse from Trump, who has referred to her as “the woman in Michigan” and “Failing Michigan Governor.”

Trump’s victory in 2016 hinged on winning in Michigan, where he edged out Hillary Clinton by a slim margin. He picked up votes in areas of the state that haven’t yet experienced high rates of infection or deaths and where some are agitated by the social distancing rules. New polling by the American Enterprise Institute found that even among Republicans, those living in rural areas were more likely to say that Trump had responded to the pandemic well and less likely to say that they were concerned about the outbreak.

At his daily press briefings, Trump has routinely deflected responsibility for his administration’s failures in responding to the virus, instead attempting to pin the blame on governors, arguing that they should have built their own stockpiles of ventilators and protective medical gear like masks and gloves rather than rely on the federal government’s.

At the same time, he’s urging states with areas that are less hard hit to get ready to reopen. And his messaging is resonating with some Republicans across the country. In Minnesota and Kentucky, for instance, some residents are also agitating for their Democratic governors to lift stay at home orders.

The installation of social distancing policies that seemed confusing to some may have been the tipping point for protesters in Michigan. But weeks of denials from the White House of the pandemic’s true cost have done little to help.

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