'Government is non-essential': Protesters hit COVID-19 restrictions

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer asks residents to limit non-essential trips outside their homes, protesters gathered Tuesday in front of the Capitol to demonstrate against what they see as government overreach amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

A protester in a wheel chair participates in a demonstration outside the Michigan Capitol on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. Participants said they were against extending Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency powers 70 days amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nicholas Somberg, an attorney from Bloomfield Hills, held a tape measure in one of his hands during the event. It was set to six feet, the current social distancing recommendation of state and federal health officials.

In Somberg's other hand, he held a sign that read, "Government is non-essential."

"What they're doing is not actually solving the issue but it's training people that the government can tell you to stay in your house or else," Somberg said. "It would be a good thing if they asked nicely or suggested it."

The group Michigan United for Liberty organized the protest. The group's Facebook page says, "We do not agree with or consent to our unalienable rights being restricted or rescinded for any reason, including the COVID-19 pandemic."

Across the country, many Republican and Democratic officials have instituted measures to limit public gatherings and require residents to stay home unless they're going out to exercise or for essential trips. Health experts say the measures are needed to keep COVID-19 from overwhelming hospitals.

As of Monday, two Michigan hospital systems, Beaumont Health and Henry Ford Health System, said they have at least 2,200 employees who had either tested positive or are home with symptoms of the novel coronavirus infection.

On March 23, Whitmer issued a stay-at-home order in Michigan, which ranks third in the United States for the most cornavirus cases and deaths. According to data released Tuesday, 845 Michiganians have died with the virus, and nearly 19,000 people here have confirmed cases.

"Imagine if we had not done any social distancing," Dr. Teena Chopra, an infectious disease specialist in Detroit, said Monday.

Nicholas Somberg participates in a protest against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency declaration outside the Michigan Capitol on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.

The Michigan Legislature convened Tuesday to extend by 23 days Whitmer's emergency declaration, which gives her greater power to unilaterally take actions to combat the virus. The governor had requested a 70-day extension.

The protesters outside the Capitol slammed the idea of a 70-day extension.

Autumn Clinesmith, who's from the Saginaw area, participated in the protest with three of her children. Clinesmith said she can't work under the governor's restrictions because she's a massage therapist.

"We have to be cautious with losing our rights over this," Clinesmith said.

She held a sign that said, "Faith not fear."

James Lotempio participates in a protest outside the Michigan Capitol as lawmakers decided whether to extend Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency declaration Tuesday, April 7, 2020.

Asked if she had any fears about coming to a public gathering during a pandemic, she responded, "There's exposure no matter where you go. Isolating yourself, it may reduce it, slow it down. But I think most people are going to be exposed in some way or another."

Likewise, Cindy Birnbaum of Saginaw said she didn't think the governor's emergency powers should be extended at all. Some Republicans argue that if they didn't vote Tuesday on an extension, Whitmer's emergency powers would expire. Meanwhile, members of Whitmer's administration say the state's COVID-19 peak won't come until weeks later.

"Most sensible people would do the sensible thing," Cindy's husband, Ted, said, arguing against government-imposed restrictions.

He held a sign that said, "Open Michigan now."

Most of the protesters were standing about six feet apart from other participants.  Asked if he had fears of catching the virus during the demonstration, Somberg said he didn't.

"I keep my hands clean," he said. "I don't touch my face."