A few thousand people descended on Madison on Friday to call for a repeal of the containment measures, according to the Wisconsin Capitol Police.
Spurred on by the economic pain inflicted under the lockdown, the protest comes as hundreds of thousands of residents are out of a job, or around one in eight workers.
Carrying a vibrant array of flags, signs and banners, the demonstrators made their presence known outside of the shuttered Capitol building.
Though they were denied a permit to hold the protest earlier this week, the event’s planners went ahead regardless, with one organizer stating she was “willing to risk citation” in order to be heard.
The crowd, bearing Trump campaign attire, Tea Party regalia and American flags, condemned Gov. Tony Evers and his extension of “Safer at Home,” a statewide declaration requiring Wisconsinites to practice social distancing through May 26.
Three separate conservative groups called for people who were opposed to Mr. Evers’s extension of the stay-at-home mandate to convene at the Capitol on Friday. In addition to a Wisconsin group that had thousands of RSVPs to its Facebook event, a caravan of business owners from the Milwaukee suburbs and a third group organized by a Minnesota gun-rights enthusiast said they would clog the streets of downtown Madison with their vehicles.
— Jim Hoft (@gatewaypundit) April 24, 2020
It was the nation’s largest gathering to date to condemn stay-at-home orders enacted by state and local governments. And while Wisconsin’s elected Republicans and party officials encouraged people to attend, none spoke and just a handful were spotted in the crowd.
“You’re being told to sit down and shut up because your opinion does not matter and you have to listen to professionals,” Madison Elmer, one of the event’s organizers, told the crowd at the beginning of the event. “You know what, you shouldn’t ever stop questioning the professionals.”
— Tanner Kahler (@tannerkahler) April 24, 2020
Governor Evers extended his “safer at home” order last week, with the containment measures now set to expire on May 26, but the second phase of lockdown will ease some of the restrictions, allowing public libraries, golf courses and a number of other “non-essential” businesses to reopen. Republican lawmakers attempted to block the extension earlier this week, filing a lawsuit calling for an injunction against the policy, but the courts have yet to grant the request.
Despite the relaxed rules, Wisconsin workers will continue to take a beating under the lockdown, seeing far worse unemployment numbers than at the height of the 2008 financial meltdown.
“Even in 2008, we didn’t have half of the unemployment claims throughout the whole great recession,” Emily Savard with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development told local media, adding that over 440,000 residents have filed for unemployment, drowning the state’s system in claims and inquiries. Nationwide, the business shutdowns could help to quadruple federal deficit spending to $3.7 trillion as lawmakers pass a series of massive relief packages, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
On top of economic woes, the protesters also voiced concerns about abuse of power and government overreach, some hoisting signs dubbing Evers a “power grabber,” while another placard sardonically read: “Oh, no! A virus. Quick … let’s burn the Bill of Rights.”
The event was not without its detractors, however, with many warning that Wisconsin has recorded a surge in coronavirus cases over the last week and that aggressive social distancing – including business closures – was still necessary. Federal guidelines recommend that states proceed with reopening only after cases decline for 14 days straight, which Wisconsin is yet to see.
As tens of millions are out of work due to containment measures imposed in states across the US, similar demonstrations have erupted elsewhere in recent weeks, including in Texas, Georgia, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Colorado, though Friday’s event in Wisconsin appears to have drawn the largest crowd of them all. While the crowd got raucous at times, police say no arrests were made and no citations handed out during the protest.
The US has recorded some 890,000 coronavirus infections and just over 51,000 fatalities, with more than 5,300 cases and 260 deaths counted in Wisconsin. Though federal health officials have pointed to a declining number of new cases in the nation’s largest hotspots, such as New York, fatalities have continued to soar, with the US repeatedly topping previous daily death tolls.
Before the event began, the number of attendees expected was unclear, as the Facebook event organizing the protest was deleted from the social media site, as were other similar events across the country.
According to a photo of the deleted Facebook event page taken earlier this week, roughly 16,000 people indicated they were interested in or planning to attend the protest.
A Facebook spokesperson said the Friday protest was removed from the site because “events that defy government’s guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook.”
Several restaurants around the Capitol Square announced Friday morning they would be closed for normal lunchtime service in response to the expected influx of people.
Governor: First Amendment Is ‘Sacred’
Gov. Tony Evers said Thursday he supports protesters’ right to gather and express their frustration with the stay-at-home order.
“Using the First Amendment to express yourself, to voice your opinion, is quite sacred,” Evers said on a call with reporters.
However, the governor urged protesters to follow social distancing guidelines.
“We’re making the assumption that these are all good Wisconsinites that are establishing their right under the First Amendment to express their views, and we also believe they will make sure they’re physically distanced from each other,” he said.
Evers said he didn’t expect Capitol police, who denied a permit for the event because it violates the stay-at-home order, to be out using a “yardstick” to gauge whether people are socially distancing.