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Whitmer to protesters: Rally will 'come at cost to people's health'

Beth LeBlanc Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The national fight over when businesses, restaurants and schools should reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic peaked in Michigan on Wednesday as thousands gathered at the state Capitol to protest tightened, nearly week-old restrictions on daily life.  

Horns blared for nearly eight hours as thousands of vehicles touting flags, banners and messages for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer circled the Capitol. Protesters voiced concerns about restoring freedoms and jobs before President Donald Trump said at a Wednesday evening press conference that he plans to announce Thursday new guidelines for reopening the nation.

The massive demonstration highlighted the tension between Whitmer's goal of saving lives and limiting the spread of COVID-19 as well as protesters' worries about avoiding prolonged economic damage and what they argue are inconsistent rules.

The noise, buzz of songs and chants continued even as the Democratic governor criticized those nearby who gridlocked the Capitol complex, accusing them of endangering lives. 

"We know that this demonstration is going to come at a cost to people's health," Whitmer said from a press conference at the Romney Building.

The governor said she respected protesters' right to free speech but questioned those who mingled outside of their cars and ignored social distancing requirements. 

"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," Whitmer said. "...Just by congregating, they've made that a real possibility."

The address came hours into Operation Gridlock, one of the largest protests at the state Capitol in a decade, in which thousands of vehicles congregated around the Capitol to push back against certain restrictions in Whitmer's stay-home order.

The Wednesday protest was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition, which told supporters to "come ready for a potentially major traffic jam around the (taxpayer-funded) Michigan Capitol Building."

A press release from the group warned attendees to "display signs, make noise and be disruptive, but stay in your vehicle so that the 'Whitmer police' cannot say you are ignoring the 'social distancing' order."

But dozens of people milled about with signs and flags on the sidewalk in front of the Capitol despite the directive. One person wearing a medical mask  waved a Confederate flag.

Drivers laid on their horns for hours throughout the event. About 400 vehicles filled Allegan Street, which runs along the Capitol, for at least four blocks. Hundreds of other vehicles crowded other Lansing streets.

Vehicles sported American flags and MAGA (Make America Great Again) banners. A banner across the Capitol lawn read "Security without liberty is called prison."

A sign on a vehicle said, "Free us from tyranny." Two men carried another sign in the street that read, "Recall Whitmer." And writing on the back of a white Suburban said, "essential home school field trip on freedom/liberty."

What sparked rally

The rally occurred nearly a week after Whitmer issued an extended and more restrictive stay-home executive order that required stores to cordon off areas deemed non-essential — such as garden and home improvement zones — and banned people from traveling between vacation homes. The order also prohibited motorized boating.

Her order also does not include updated guidance from the federal government that would have allowed more people in certain professions to work during the crisis.

Michigan State Police troopers only took enforcement action, traffic or otherwise, in the case of vandalism or if there was a threat to human life, said Lt. Brian Oleksyk, public information officer for the State Police's First District. 

"Our goal is to provide a safe and secure environment for visitors to the Capitol while also protecting the Capitol complex as well as the governor’s residence," Oleksyk said. "We’re trying to do that while protecting the First Amendment rights of people attending the event.”

Shortly after 3 p.m., Michigan State Police responded to an altercation among protesters at Michigan and Capitol avenues but it was quickly dispersed, said State Police Lt. Darren Green. One person was arrested for assault, Green said.

The crowds largely were "polite" and "respectful," Green said.

Toward the end of the event, police began to create makeshift barricades with their bicycles at crosswalks in front of the Capitol to discourage individuals from blocking traffic. They also took a more active role in directing traffic out of the city.

A caravan of protesters

Mike Vennix, 58, of Kalamazoo was among dozens of protesters who got out of their vehicles and gathered in front of the Capitol.

Asked if he had ever seen anything like the demonstration, he said no.

"Not like this," he said. "This is great stuff."

Like others, Vennix argued Whitmer should let more people return to work and lift restrictions on public outings. But many health officials have backed Whitmer's policies, arguing they will prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.

"People can make up their own minds and play it smart as far as what we’re faced with," Vennix said.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, joined protesters by waving American flags from the first-floor windows of his Capitol office. He argued the governor should be allowing reasonable changes to the stay-home order to allow people to start returning safely to work. 

"My only goal is hopefully to ensure that government does hear them," Chatfield said. "I know I've heard them. I have their back, and I want to do all I can to ensure their constitutional rights are protected and they can get their livelihoods back and take care of their families."

Denny Bradley, 33, of Jackson carried a yellow sign that read, "I want to work."

The auto supplier that employs him has been shut down since March 24, Bradley said. And he is the lone source of income for his family.

On whether he was concerned about catching the virus during the event, he responded, "I think that the curve has turned, and I am just not afraid."

Protesters stand in front of a sign on the Capitol lawn on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. The event is a demonstration against restrictions imposed by Gov. Gretchen  Whitmer's stay-at-home order.

Another participant in Wednesday's protest, Erik Lane of Grand Rapids, argued Whitmer should be quarantining the sick instead of forcing the majority of people to stay inside their homes.

"Quarantine the high risk and let the low-risk people work," Lane said.

Countering the protest

Todd Harden of Flushing was one of a few counter-protesters at the rally, carrying a neon sign that said “We back ‘that woman,’” a reference to a remark by Trump in which he referred to Whitmer as “the woman in Michigan.”

Whitmer is a “smart lady,” Harden said, but he predicted she would likely “come down a notch” on some restrictions associated with the stay-home order. 

“I always thought she was top-notch, and I believe in her decisions,” he said. “I just want a little more quiet quarantine time.”

Several physicians also came to Whitmer's defense in a Wednesday statement, including Michigan State Medical Society President Dr. Mohammed Arsiwala, who said physicians "are still in the middle of the battle."

As of Wednesday, Michigan had more than 29,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with over 1,900 deaths. The state ranks among the top four nationally for both cases and deaths and has been labeled a "hotspot" by federal health officials.

“This cannot and will not go on forever," Arsiwala said. "We continue to work to put the needs of patients first while supporting physicians in protecting their personal health and the financial health of the many medical practices that have been shuttered during this time.”

Last week, Stephen Hawes, an epidemiology professor at the University of Washington, cautioned that lifting population-based interventions, such as the stay-at-home order, too early may result "in future upticks" in COVID-19 cases.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com