Thousands of disgruntled Michiganders descended on downtown Lansing Wednesday afternoon to provide a new soundtrack to dissent amid a global pandemic: the blaring horn. Lines of cars and trucks miles long stopped traffic on the streets surrounding the Michigan State Capitol as part of “Operation Gridlock,” a protest organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 stay-at-home executive orders.
While the event’s Facebook page urged attendees to “STAY in your VEHICLES,” hundreds of protestors mingled on the Capitol lawn and surrounding sidewalks, holding signs and waving flags. American, Trump and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags were most common, with Confederate flags also interspersed. Speakers on the Capitol steps led a crowd below in prayers and chants like, “Lock her up!”
Participants of the protest sought to voice anger over last Thursday’s executive order, which extended Michigan’s stay-at-home guidelines until April 30 and further restricted definitions of “essential” businesses and activities to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the state. Michigan has the third-highest number of cases in the country, with 28,059 confirmed cases and 1,921 deaths as of Wednesday.
Whitmer’s first stay-at-home order went into effect on March 24, and Republican members of the state legislature voiced their concerns about the impact of the extension of the order on the economy. State Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said in a press release that the Michigan Senate Republicans trust residents to take necessary precautions on their own for themselves, their families and their businesses.
A petition to recall Whitmer has been circulating and had 256,000 signatures at the time of publication. The petition, started by John Powell, claims Whitmer’s “failures during the Covid-19 Corona Virus is causing more Michiganders to get sick.”
Michael Hoover, who drove to the protest from Jackson, said he worried the latest order was an overstep on personal freedom.
“We cannot let fear dictate our liberties, because if we start letting things go because we’re afraid, then those things that we let go are going to be very hard to get back,” Hoover said. “And we have a duty to protect that.”
Hoover emphasized he believes many protestors were aware of the dangers of COVID-19 but think the state’s response has pushed too far.
“Why we want to do this is not because we want to go back to walking down the street and sniffing air like nothing’s happening,” Hoover said. “We want our rights to not be taken advantage of — we don’t have to ask the governor permission to do anything that the Constitution grants us.”
Many of the signs held by protesters in cars and around the Capitol expressed frustration with the order’s effect on small businesses. One sign read, “Small business is essential business.” Another read, “The government has no business telling you what is or is not essential to you.”
Mark Schriemer, an alum of the University of Michigan, lives and works in Ann Arbor as a remodeling contractor. He said his business has been devastated by the restrictions, as he had to lay off all of his employees and resort to solo side jobs to keep himself financially afloat. Schriemer worried that Whitmer’s response was too broad geographically when the majority of COVID-19 cases are tracked to Southeast Michigan.
“You’re locking down the state for the sake of a problem that’s going on primarily in two counties,” Schriemer said. “She just hangs on her talking points and tells us all to just trust her that she’s saving all of our lives. And I’m not seeing the proof of that here. I’m seeing a lot of people going out of business and they’re never gonna reopen.”
Public health experts have expressed support for Whitmer’s orders, saying the extension is necessary to fight the spread of the virus. In a statement, Vikas Parekh, associate chief clinical officer for Michigan Medicine’s adult hospitals and professor of internal medicine, said reducing contact for an extended period of time is essential to drive the number of cases in the state down.
“The data confirm that everyone in Michigan can help us flatten the curve, and it is crucial,” Parekh said. “In a scenario where the virus spreads throughout the local population infecting the majority of the population, our model shows tremendous differences between less and more aggressive social distancing.”
Dan Garrison of Jackson said he attended the protest because he has seen his small business officiating weddings and his part-time job officiating high school sports dry up over the last month, and many of his friends have lost work as landscapers and lawn care providers.
“I agree with parts of it — social distancing — absolutely I do,” Garrison said. “I agree with the whole concern with health and welfare, people’s well-being, I do. But I just think that she should have made exceptions on particular jobs that people need to do.”
Whitmer addressed protester frustrations in a press conference Wednesday afternoon, acknowledging their economic fear as real while also encouraging small business owners to start thinking of plans to safely reopen.
“How does that particular business protect their employees and their customers?” Whitmer said. “Now is the time to throw our energy into planning, because we know that COVID-19 is not going to be gone on April 1 or May 1 or July, June, or August 1. This is a virus that will continue to spread unless we all do our part. That’s why, as we think about re-engaging sectors of our economy, it’s going to be really critical that we have confidence that we can do that safely.”
According to a Michigan Nurses Association statement from Tina Ray, Ambulance traffic to Sparrow Hospital, located on Michigan Avenue a mile east of the Capitol, was impeded by the protest. Ray expressed her concerns about having protests during the COVID-19 pandemic, stating it prevents medical professionals from doing their jobs.
“While everyone has a right to gather and express their opinions, today’s protest sends exactly the opposite message that nurses and healthcare professionals are trying to get across: we are begging people, please stay home,” Ray wrote. “The protest was irresponsible, impeding ambulances and traffic to Sparrow Hospital, where frontline healthcare workers are risking their lives taking care of patients suffering from COVID-19. Lives are being saved because of the stay-home order. We ask everyone to protect themselves, their families and us by doing what’s best for the greater good.”
Greg Moore, an Okemos native, took his mother to Sparrow Hospital on Wednesday for stage-four cancer treatment. Moore was upset by the fact that he had to weave through traffic and take side streets to get to the hospital and said the protest crossed a line.
“I don’t think it really falls under peaceful protest, I don’t think it falls under a protest that doesn’t cause a disturbance,” Moore said. “So I think it should have been disbanded … there are probably other ways of protesting this that don’t involve blocking hospital entrances.”
Protesters on the Capitol lawn and surrounding sidewalks did not follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing guidelines of staying at least six feet from other people, avoiding gathering in groups and staying out of crowded places. Tiffany Brown, press secretary for Whitmer, emphasized before the event that the governor will always defend free speech, but asked that “those who choose to protest these orders to do so in a manner that doesn’t put their health or the health of our first responders at risk.”
At the press conference, Whitmer addressed the possible health consequences of the protest. She said that in addition to causing the hospital difficulties and bus service reroutes, the gathering could lead to the spread of COVID-19.
“We know that this demonstration is going to come at a cost to people's health,” Whitmer said. “It already did in those two examples (of hospital and bus troubles), but we know that when people gather that way without masks — they were in close proximity, they were touching one another — that’s how COVID-19 spreads. The sad irony here is that the protest was that they don’t like being in this stay-home order and they may have just created a need to lengthen it, which is something that we’re trying to avoid at all costs.”
On the Capitol lawn, Art & Design sophomore Mckenzie Balaka, fundraising chair for College Republicans, took part in the protest with her mom. When asked about the apparent lack of social distancing, she said she was not worried.
“I think based on what they’ve said to us, if you’re immunocompromised you need to wear a mask and probably shouldn’t come out today,” Balaka said. “Like, my uncle has asthma. But if you’re not immunocompromised, we’re all fine. I think we’re all okay.”
Immunocompromised people are at heightened risk of coming down with severe cases of COVID-19. However, people without any underlying conditions may contract more mild versions of the disease and could act as asymptomatic carriers
Not everyone gathered at the Capitol Wednesday opposed Whitmer’s orders. Christian Bartolo, a student at Grand Rapids Community College, held a sign on the Capitol lawn that read, “You weren’t this angry @ Snyder 4 Poisoning Flint.”
Bartolo said he’s keeping his social distance and trying to stay six feet away from people, but noticed others were not holding themselves to the same standard.
“They’re all shaking hands, they’re all hugging each other, like, this is how coronavirus spreads,” Bartolo said. “I think that your boating rights, being able to fish while on a boat, being able to buy mulch and buy planks of wood is less important than keeping people safe from COVID-19.”
As cars rumbled over nearby Michigan Avenue en route to the Capitol, a man sat alone along the banks of the Grand River, taking in the sounds of “Operation Gridlock” from a distance. Dan Walker, in his 58 years, never thought the world would come to anything like the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he doesn’t trust a lot of government systems, no matter the country.
“Some people say it’s gonna get better, some people say it’s gonna get worse,” Walker said. “I’m just sitting back and watching and listening.”
However, he said the orders are in place to keep people safe.
“All those people up there are probably spreading the virus,” Walker said. “They’re spreading it, so what is it really helping? I don’t know, man. It’s got me perplexed.”
Reporter Calder Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.