Behind coronavirus lockdown protests, questions of whom to trust

Why We Wrote This

Should states put more faith in their citizens to do the right thing, even amid a pandemic? It’s a question with enormous consequences. But many Americans say “yes.”

Paul Sancya/AP
Steve Polet holds a sign during a protest against state lockdowns at the State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, on April 15.

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Pamela Huberty doesn’t know how she’ll do social distancing in her 1,100-square-foot gift boutique in rural Crystal, Michigan. But she’s so confident she’ll figure it out, she’s reopening May 1. Ms. Huberty joined the Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine Facebook group and has sympathy for those protesting lockdowns. “I call it the COVID-19 monster.”

On the fly, a divided nation is calibrating whether to continue strict state lockdowns. Michigan’s governor recently doubled down, restricting even some solitary activities. The backlash has begun to show how far states can go before inciting the libertarian streak that spawned the tea party.

The number of people agitating for states to reopen their economies is small. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll suggests more than two-thirds of Americans are more worried about states ending lockdowns too soon.

Yet for some caught in the middle, the question is not political, but how states could be trusting citizens more. Says one scholar: “There is a sense that an awful lot of what modern life is doing is not liberating us, but restricting us, and so then you get a pandemic and you get restrictions on steroids.”

As the owner of Ken’s Greenhouses in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Mark Smit has a roomful of plants he worries will go unsold.

His anxiety isn’t really about the national all-hands-on-deck response to the coronavirus. It’s about why, in Michigan, those restrictions have veered into what appear to him to be solitary and responsible activities.

On April 9, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer banned travel between private residences and mandated that large stores close areas dedicated to flooring, furniture, plant nurseries, or paint. Fishing in a motorized boat is off limits, too.

Lawsuits have been filed, and Mr. Smit says the governor’s measures are “a little overkill.” But his frustration is nuanced. “I say that understanding why it was done. I’m not happy with things the way they are, but I want to be cautious about not standing on a street corner and yelling, ‘They’re making a big mistake, and I’m going under because of it!’ We’re not to that extent yet, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

That line has already been crossed for many protesters who have gathered in recent days from Lansing, Michigan, to Canton, Georgia. The events are part tea party patriotism, accented by yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” flags, and part MAGA rally, with blue Trump 2020 banners.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll suggests the number of people aggressively agitating for states to reopen their economies is small. A Pew Research Center survey finds only 32% of Americans are more worried about lockdowns not ending quickly enough, rather than too quickly. But encouraged by President Donald Trump, who exhorted Michiganders to “liberate” their state, their voice can be loud.

Mr. Smit was not at the rally, and his opinions are not nearly so decided. Rather, like many Americans, he is wrestling with the question of whom to trust most in the time of a pandemic.

For some, the threat of COVID-19 means the government must step in to enforce safe behaviors. But Ms. Whitmer’s orders have prompted Mr. Smit, like some others, to wonder if there is a different way. Can states have more trust in Americans themselves to do the right thing?

The answer to that question has led to different paths. On the fly, an already divided nation is calibrating the balance between public health, the economy, and the role of government.

Even as Ms. Whitmer doubles down on restrictions in Michigan, a trio of Southern governors – in Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee – is scaling back restrictions this week, citing evidence that the pandemic has peaked. Movie theaters, restaurants, bowling alleys, and tattoo shops will all soon be open in Georgia, though some mayors are pushing back.

“There is a sense that an awful lot of what modern life is doing is not liberating us, but restricting us, and so then you get a pandemic and you get restrictions on steroids,” says Michael Wolff, the former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court. “And of course, a big enough match can light a pretty good fire.”

Michigan Office of the Governor/AP
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer addresses the state during a speech in Lansing, on April 13.

Inside the protests

So far, protests have been small. But Mr. Trump has offered support for the cause, saying some governors were taking restrictions too far.

In Canton, Georgia, combat veteran Shane Hazel organized a small protest where people held signs that said, “We will not comply.” Some attendees wore face coverings and carried rifles.

In an interview, Mr. Hazel, a Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate, says it is up to Americans to “not walk beyond the firing line” and risk catching the virus.

“We can either do their one-size-fits-all, or we can unleash the American passion, the American genius, and their will to survive and overcome and triumph – to the tune of 350 million brains working on the same problem, in their best interest,” says Mr. Hazel.

The protests come as some states are already relaxing restrictions. Floridians began swarming back to the water last week after Gov. Rick DeSantis said municipalities could open up parks and beaches if done in a “safe way.”

In Manatee County, just south of St. Petersburg, a county commissioner led efforts to reopen boat ramps. “You keep it up and they’re going to rebel ... [and] we’ll be at the jail for safekeeping,” Vanessa Baugh told a meeting last week before becoming the deciding vote to reopen the ramps. State officers are policing distancing rules between boats.

“It is a tough question,” says Ms. Baugh in an interview a few days after the meeting. “Do you step on the Constitution? And, then, do you really have to step on the Constitution to do what you need to do? I don’t think we need to, not at this point.”

The protests elicit sympathy from Pamela Huberty, who owns a gift boutique in rural Crystal, Michigan. She joined a Facebook group called Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine that has amassed over 366,000 members in two weeks.

She closed her shop in compliance with the executive orders but is planning to reopen May 1 while determining how to achieve social distancing in a 1,100-square foot area.

“I call it the COVID-19 monster,” says Ms. Huberty. “The fear of this virus is going to kill us before the virus does. I see people turning on each other, and that’s the big issue right now. We’re not trusting each other.”

Whose trust?

But that trust is multifaceted, with states still maintaining strict lockdowns and worried that their sacrifices could be undone by states now reopening. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s chief epidemiologist, has warned that failure to contain the disease could mean more deaths and economic havoc down the line.

The balancing act is putting governors in a difficult situation – particularly in “purple” states like Michigan, which have strong dashes of red and blue. Governors want to do everything in their power to save lives but also don’t want to stoke anger.

“If it looks as if the government is moving too far too fast, then you’ve got sort of a tea party possibility welling up again in opposition to the heavy hand of government – and [governors] don’t want to trigger that,” says Cal Jillson, author of “American Government.”

Retiree Alan Marble from Benzie County, Michigan, has confidence in the governor. She “has the best information, the best science, and the best input from social scientists and others who know human behavior,” he says.

In the end, the issue is not as black and white as it is often portrayed. “It’s much too simple to say that someone who is willing to trade freedom for security deserves neither,” says Mr. Wolff, now a professor at St. Louis University Law School. “There is another way to look at it: ‘I can give you some of my privacy and my autonomy – temporarily – if you’ll keep me from dying.’”

“There is some flexibility in the system for the government to break the law in order to protect the public health,” Mr. Wolff adds.

In fact, a 1905 U.S. Supreme Court found that the government could set aside constitutional rights in a public health emergency. That ruling mandated smallpox vaccines. The question is how broadly and bluntly the precedent can be applied during the current pandemic.

For her part, Jennifer Stell of Mattawan, Michigan, is more than willing to curtail her activities. Her daughter lost her job as a waitress in Ann Arbor in late March. So she and her husband are delivering food and money to her by driving across the state, knocking on the door, offering a quick wave and hello before reluctantly departing back to Mattawan.

She’s “100%” in support of Ms. Whitmer. “I don’t feel that I have lost any civil liberties,” she says. “If I can’t go up north right now and hang out in a cottage to ensure that other people are going to stay healthier, I have no problem doing that.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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