Demonstrators drove thousands of vehicles — many draped with protest signs — to Michigan’s state Capitol on Wednesday, loudly protesting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order intended to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Police watched as horns honked and commercial and private vehicles from around the state jammed Capitol Avenue and other streets surrounding Michigan’s seat of government.
“Liberty once lost is lost forever,” read a sign draped across a commercial van. “Security without liberty is called prison,” read another, stretched across the Capitol’s front lawn. “Recall Whitmer,” a third sign said.
Organizers said they expected thousands of vehicles, and those projections appeared accurate.
Lt. Darren Green of the Michigan State Police estimated several thousand cars were part of the demonstration, with 100 to 150 people on the Capitol lawn. Green said traffic was backed up for more than a mile around the Capitol in several directions.
“They’re being respectful and not causing any issues at all,” Green said.
Still, many on the sidewalks were passing close to each other, and most were not wearing masks. Most of the police officers around the demonstration were also not wearing masks.
The Michigan State Police and the Lansing Police Department had reported one arrest by 3 p.m. A demonstrator was arrested on suspicion of assaulting another protester near the corner of Capitol and Michigan, Green said. There were no injuries, he said.
Many of the demonstrators wore hats or waved signs showing support for Republican President Donald Trump.
Though demonstrators appeared to want to keep one lane of Capitol Avenue open for a brief time, all lanes of both that major street and Allegan Avenue were mostly at a standstill.
According to photographs posted on social media and other reports, at least one ambulance was brought to a stop in traffic on Grand Avenue, close to a nearby Lansing hospital. The traffic jam extended east on Michigan Avenue from the Capitol to beyond Pennsylvania Avenue, with idling cars lined up in front of a Sparrow Health System hospital.
John Foren, a spokesman for Sparrow Health System, said there had been no issues with ambulances being unable to access the hospital entrances.
“So far, they have not disrupted things, as far as I’ve been told,” Foren said early Wednesday afternoon, referencing entrances to the hospital on Michigan.
However, there were concerns about ambulances being tied up or potentially delayed on their way to the hospital, he said.
Traffic began to slowly flow again about 1:30 p.m., though tie-ups continued in spots, and many vehicles were still headed in the direction of the Capitol.
Justin Heyboer of Alto, an owner of Wildwood Family Farms, said his family has been in business for four generations and the order is financially crippling on several fronts. The company does landscaping, has greenhouses, hosts weddings and has a liquor license, he said.
“This is our busiest time of year,” said Heyboer, who drove to Lansing for the demonstration dubbed “Operation Gridlock” because organizers said they wanted to gain attention by tying up traffic.
“I’d rather die from the coronavirus than see a generational company be gone.”
Heyboer later said he feels very strongly about the stay-home order but wished he had chosen different words to express that.
Despite the large protest, many Michigan residents have voiced support for the stay-home order, and compliance has been strong.
Mary Ducker, a retired registered nurse who lives in Ypsilanti, said she was disgusted by the protest.
“Please do not make it look like the entire state believes what this handful of … people do!” she said in an email.
Zack Pohl, Whitmer’s communications director, tweeted a series of supportive statements Wednesday from health care professionals.
“There is no question the governor’s order and response by Michiganders has slowed the spread of COVID-19,” Henry Ford Allegiance Health CEO Paula Autry said in one of those statements.
Meshawn Maddock, a board member of the Michigan Conservative Coalition, the nonprofit group that organized the protest, said the demonstration should send a strong message to the governor that it is time to allow Michiganders to return to work, in cases where they can do so safely.
“All of these people still have to go home to the sober reality that they don’t have income coming in,” Maddock said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Maddock said the rising curve of COVID-19 infections has already been flattened, and that it is time to get Michigan back to work and recreation, especially in areas of the state that have been less hard-hit.
State infection numbers appeared to flatten somewhat going into last weekend, but both infection and death numbers were up again on Tuesday, and an additional 1,058 cases and 153 deaths were reported Wednesday. Health officials have recently expressed cautious optimism but have added that it is too soon to say that the infection has reached its peak in Michigan.
Maddock said the order has wide-ranging effects, including creating difficulties obtaining medical treatment for those with non-coronavirus-related medical problems.
“It feels like the governor is doing this more almost like a publicity stunt,” Maddock said. “It also feels like she’s mocking Michiganders.”
Whitmer has been criticized by Republicans for making numerous national TV appearances during the pandemic, which have included criticism of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic. Laura Cox, the chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, has accused Whitmer, who is a national co-chair of former Vice President Joe Biden’s Democratic presidential campaign, of auditioning for a spot as his running mate.
Whitmer has rejected those allegations, saying she is driven by scientific data and the advice of health professionals and is focused on saving lives. She has noted that Michigan has the third-highest number of coronavirus deaths in the nation and that in the absence of adequate testing, social distancing is the most effective way of slowing the spread. She also said that each national TV appearance has resulted in more help for Michigan in obtaining needed supplies such as ventilators and surgical masks.
The governor has also said that the demonstration does not violate the stay-at-home order, but she called on Wednesday’s protesters to act safely so as not to increase the infection rate or put police or other first responders at risk.
Whitmer declared a state of emergency in Michigan on March 10 and announced a “stay-at-home” order March 23 that directed residents to stay inside, except for essential purposes, and told businesses deemed nonessential to stop calling employees in to work. Last week, she extended that order until May 1, while imposing tougher restrictions on nonessential travel and some retail outlets.
“This is a hard time, but the good news is that the vast majority of people in our state are doing the right thing and … it’s working,” Whitmer said at a news conference Wednesday.
The demonstration “wasn’t really about the stay-at-home order at all,” Whitmer said later on MSNBC. “It was a political rally,” she said, advocates for open carry of firearms, and people who were protesting against abortion rights.
House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, posted video on social media of himself waving a U.S. flag out of a Capitol window that overlooked the protest.
“I will always support the right of the people to protest their government and make their voices heard,” Chatfield said.
Two Realtors from Jackson, Rhonda Miles and DeAnn Gumbert, attended the demonstration and both said they believed they would be able to continue showing houses if Michigan followed federal social-distancing guidelines.
“I’m just ready to go back to work,” said Gumbert, who said she has sold a few homes, but only with great difficulty, since the executive order forced her to show homes virtually, using photographs and video.
Miles said she is concerned that purchase offers will be withdrawn because interested buyers are unable to personally visit and inspect the homes.
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