Last week, many Americans became sick of life under lockdown and started calling for a more balanced and less-restrictive approach to fighting the pandemic. Or else, as others would describe it, Trump-inspired right-wingers set out to undermine public health efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. As with everything else these days, reactions to stay-at-home orders are subject to partisan interpretation; nobody can hoist a sign in front of a television camera without prompting speculation about the impact on the presidential election. Whatever your interpretation, Americans across the country are taking to the streets to oppose top-down mandates that are meant to save lives, but that also kill jobs and prosperity.
"This week, a rash of well-organized protests against state restrictions broke out—a jolting reminder that not everyone is on board with the new, government-mandated limits on public assembly and economic activity," noted The New York Times.
Are the protests just political theater? They're certainly political, since they target government policy. But the large turnout for some of them points to anger and desperation more than partisanship as motivation.
"Rallies organized through social media such as Facebook and Twitter cropped up this week across the country with a common message to governors: relax the strict stay-at-home orders deployed to combat the novel coronavirus," reported USA Today. "Thousands of motorists gridlocked Lansing, Mich., on Wednesday in perhaps the largest protest so far."
Conservative groups helped to organize at least some of the protests—the Michigan Conservative Coalition enthusiastically promoted the car-based Operation Gridlock in Lansing, Michigan, for instance—but these organizations couldn't evoke thousands of participants out of thin air. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's seemingly panic-fueled flurry of restrictions on business activity, visits between households, landscaping work, travel to second homes, and sale of "non-essential" goods by large retailers may be the most draconian in the country. That's inspiration enough to protest for people watching savings accounts dwindle, businesses disappear, and lives stagnate.
And while President Donald Trump tweeted his support to anti-lockdown protesters in three states with Democratic governors (assuming that's what LIBERATE MICHIGAN!, LIBERATE MINNESOTA!, and LIBERATE VIRGINIA mean) he did so on Friday, April 17. That was well after the protests had already spread across the nation without his blessing.
Protests have targeted stay-at-home orders issued by Republican governors as well as by Democratic governors. That includes demonstrations in GOP-led Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Ohio, Texas, and Utah. Those rallies are identical to the ones targeting orders issued by Democrats in states including California, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, libertarian concerns feature in some protesters' comments and much of the coverage of the rallies.
"We seem to be forgetting that we live in the land of the free, not the land of the forced medical tracking or forced medical procedures," Stephanie Locricchio, organizer of a demonstration in Trenton, New Jersey, told reporters.
On the opposite coast, hundreds of people showed up for a Huntington Beach, California, rally that organizers advertised as "for freedom, liberty and reopening the California economy."
"The backlash may be less about fears that the response will cause economic harm, and more about a sense of outrage at an infringement on liberties," mused coverage of the protests in The New York Times. The piece went on to speculate that "something other than libertarian outrage may need to become a central theme. Perhaps fear of undue economic strain could play this role."
If libertarian outrage isn't enough to bring more people into the streets to demand a return to voluntary practices rather then government impositions, there's plenty of economic strain to go around. That's true even if it hasn't (yet) affected journalists in their home offices to the same extent that it's hit people who've been laid off or seen their livelihoods shattered.
Writing at the end of March, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis economist Miguel Faria-e-Castro projected a 32.1 percent unemployment rate for the second quarter of 2020 as a result of stay-at-home orders closing businesses and sidelining workers. That was a prediction, but we appear to be on our way there already.
"The jobless rate today is almost certainly higher than at any point since the Great Depression. We think it's around 13 percent and rising at a speed unmatched in American history," Justin Wolfers, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, wrote earlier this month.
After more weeks of forced closures to control the spread of COVID-19, and job losses "effectively erasing a decade worth of job creation," as a Bloomberg report put it, the unemployment rate appears to have crept above 17 percent—and to be on its way to over 20 percent by the end of April.
The economic damage we suffer now in our efforts to reduce public health risk may linger for decades. "Significant macroeconomic after-effects of the pandemics persist for about 40 years, with real rates of return substantially depressed," economists affiliated with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the University of California, Davis wrote in a working paper on the long-term economic consequences of events like the worldwide spread of COVID-19.
Ignoring such economic carnage while battling the pandemic is guaranteed to inspire more people to protest—including those who may not share libertarian outrage at how various authorities are handling containment measures.
For their part, many of the protesters seem to take the public health threat as seriously as they prize their liberty and fear economic harm. While pundits who mock the demonstrations focus on social distancing violations and conspiracy theorists who deny the reality of COVID-19, organizers in Michigan and elsewhere emphasize car-based protests and good hygiene to minimize contagion.
"We are all concerned for those afflicted with COVID 19," cautions the Michigan Conservative Coalition on its Operation Gridlock webpage. "Yes, many of the personal behaviors we have been reminded to use are good practices. Wash your hands. Cover your cough. Stay home if you are sick."
That's not to say that all of the participants come to identical conclusions about the proper response—nor should they. People live different lives and have varying tolerances for risk. It's nothing less than bizarre to impose one-size-fits-all restrictions on a nation that varies from young and healthy to old and ill, from white collar to blue collar, from well-to-do to just getting by, and in which some people live in dispersed rural settings and others in densely populated cities. That disconnect between cookie-cutter mandates and people's perception of what's right for them is yet another reason to take dissent to the streets.
Government officials might regain a little respect and support if they placed as much faith in the public to voluntarily do the right thing as do protest organizers. If they learned to balance risks to the same extent as the angry people swarming state capitals, demonstrations against restrictive pandemic policy wouldn't be as necessary as they are. Until then, you should expect the demonstrations to grow.