A day after Donald Trump encouraged Americans to protest against strict public health measures aimed at limiting the spread of coronavirus, rallies were held in state capitals in Maryland, Texas and Ohio, with more planned for next week in other states.
Hundreds of people stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the Texas Capitol on Saturday, chanting “Fire Fauci!” as part of a protest organized by the conspiracy theory site InfoWars. Anthony Fauci is the top public health expert on the White House coronavirus taskforce.
In Maryland, protesters stayed inside their cars and honked their horns as they drove around the capital, Annapolis, to demand that Governor Larry Hogan “reopen Maryland”.
The protests demanding governors reverse shutdown orders have been boosted by rightwing media outlets and by the president, who tweeted on Friday “Liberate Minnesota!” and “Liberate Michigan!” in the wake of a protest in Michigan that drew thousands of people.
Widespread shutdowns to prevent the spread of coronavirus have left many Americans unemployed, worried that their small businesses will not survive the next few months of the crisis, and afraid of deepening economic problems. But those actually taking to the streets to protest against public health measures represent a minority opinion, according to a recent poll.
Two-thirds of Americans fear that state governments will lift restrictions on public activity too quickly, compared with only one third who worry they will not do so quickly enough, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey of nearly 5,000 American adults.
Republicans were evenly divided on the issue, with 51% saying they were concerned about restrictions being lifted too quickly, the poll found.
In Texas, even the InfoWars contributor who organized the rally estimated that it had attracted, at most, a few hundred people.
In Maryland, organizers of the “Reopen Maryland” protest asked supporters to stay in their cars and keep their messaging respectful. Local news outlets shared footage of streets in Annapolis filled bumper-to-bumper with cars, many of them honking their horns. Some participants flew American flags and many scrawled protest messages on their windows.
“We are petitioning our governor, Larry Hogan, to immediately reopen our state’s business, educational and religious institutions,” the protest organizers wrote in an online letter, arguing that, while coronavirus was a serious public health concern, “the economic, social and educational disruption caused by shutdowns is guaranteed to cause significant, even greater, harm”.
One local resident who participated in the protest wrote that he wanted to show up so the governor “hears both sides” of the debate over how long to keep shutdown measures in place, and said he had seen hundreds of other cars participating.
“Right now it seems to be all shutdown, without consideration for those who are hurt by it. That does include me,” Tony, a 35-year-old personal trainer from Elkridge, Maryland, told the Guardian in a Twitter message. He declined to give his last name.
With gyms closed for weeks, Tony said, he has not been able to work, and as an independent contractor, he and similar workers have few support systems during the shutdown. If public parks had remained open , he said, he could hold socially distant fitness training sessions outside.
“It just seems like nonsense that spaces are closed that would be really minimal risk to open,” he wrote, saying the choice showed “a lack of balance”.
Tony wrote he believed some shutdown measures should stay in place, like keeping crowded club and stadium venues closed, but he wanted to see some businesses reopen, perhaps at reduced capacity.
In Texas, where the anti-shutdown protest was organized by conspiracy theorists, the rhetoric was more extreme, with an organizer referring to the “coronavirus hoax,” and the “narratives” of the “Deep State”.
Alex Jones, the InfoWars founder, stood at the center of a packed crowd of hundreds of people on Saturday afternoon and bellowed into a bullhorn, praising attendees for resisting tyranny. Few of the Texas protesters were wearing masks.
“I see a bunch of healthy Americans out here who don’t seem to be afraid of a virus,” said Owen Shroyer, the InfoWars personality who organized the protest, according to footage of the protest livestreamed on Periscope.
Shroyer’s Twitter account was reportedly suspended this week after he shared posts about the protest.
“If I want to go out to the gym or the club, or a restaurant, I’m not going to wear a mask,” Shroyer said. “Neither am I!” a woman shouted back at him.
Shroyer suggested that if thousands of Americans held protests against the shutdown all over the country, they would be able to see that “the the virus doesn’t spread like they told us”. He referred to “the coronavirus hoax” on the livestream, then added that while there was a real virus, “the hysteria, the shutdown,” was the hoax.
A spokesperson for the Texas state police did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether there had been any arrests or citations at the rally.