Trump praises the movement even as Fauci warns that reopening too soon will delay economic recovery.
Protests in at least 25 states demanding that governors ease social-distancing restrictions have earned praise from President Donald Trump and coincided with several Republican governors announcing that they will begin to “reopen” their economies in the coming weeks.
But even in some states with high-profile demonstrations, public polling suggests that there is only minority support for easing the restrictions that public-health experts say are crucial to slowing the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
Across the nation, 66 percent of Americans are more worried that the government will ease restrictions on public activity too quickly, rather than not quickly enough, according to a Pew study earlier this month. Even among Republicans, a very slight majority — 51 percent compared to 46 percent — worry that state governments will act too quickly to lift restrictions.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released on April 19 found that nearly six in 10 Americans were more worried that the country would move too fast to lift restrictions. That survey found that 39 percent of Republicans were afraid restrictions would be loosened too quickly, while 48 percent were concerned it would take too long.
And according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released Tuesday, just 10 percent of Americans expect gatherings of 10 or more people to be safe by the end of April or earlier. Two-thirds think it may take until June or later (77 percent of Democrats, 51 percent of Republicans). The poll also found that Republicans who are more concerned about getting sick from the virus are more likely to believe it will take longer to safely gather in large numbers.
So far, the protest movement is spotty, inconsistently attended, and at least in some cases, organized by conservative advocacy groups. Anecdotal evidence suggests the movement could be growing as Fox and other conservative outlets amplify and praise the demonstrators.
Still, an April 15 protest in Michigan that attracted a reported 4,000 people appears to be the exception, rather than the rule. And in a survey of 600 Michiganders taken after Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended the social distancing restrictions that sparked the protests, 57 percent of respondents approved of her handling of the pandemic, while 37 percent who disapproved. (39 percent of respondents identified as Democrats, 35 percent as Republicans, and 26 percent as independents.) Half of the group disapproved of Trump’s handling of the crisis; 44 percent approved.
Some protests in recent days have drawn up to 2,500 participants, including demonstrations in Harrisburg, Penn., San Clemente, Calif., and Olympia, Wash. Demonstrators arrived waving American flags and, in some cases, sporting guns and militia-style gear. Many did not wear masks and ignored social-distancing guidelines. They expressed skepticism about the danger of infection from coronavirus and argued that closures amounted to government overreach, according to local news reports.
Elsewhere, protests have been smaller, if colorful. An April 18 gathering in Austin, Texas, attracted only “dozens” of people, according to the New York Times. Gatherings in Ohio, Kentucky, and North Carolina drew roughly 100 attendees. A spokesman for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland said Monday in a tweet that a demonstration of just a single pick-up truck and one protester had “minimal participation.”
“There were more media inquiries about this than there were participants,” Kata Hall, another Hogan spokesman, added in a separate tweet.
A separate Maryland protest sponsored by a group called “Reopen Maryland” on Saturday drew hundreds of protesters.
At least some of the state-level groups organizing the protests are backed or run by a handful of fringe conservative advocacy groups. For example, some of the largest Facebook groups backing “reopening” for Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York are the work of a group known as “Minnesota Gun Rights,” according to the Washington Post — helping to create the appearance that the protest movement is larger and more organic than it actually is. The Michigan Freedom Fund, headed by a longtime advisor to the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, also spent several hundred dollars to promote the demonstrations on Facebook, according to the Post.
The social media platform has begun to remove posts organizing similar protests in states where such gatherings contravene executive orders for people to stay inside.
"Unless government prohibits the event during this time, we allow it to be organized on Facebook. For this same reason, events that defy government's guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook,” a company spokesman said in a statement.
Trump has issued vague messages of support on Twitter, tweeting Friday to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN”, “LIBERATE VIRGINIA” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA” — three states with Democratic governors and strict social distancing guidelines — but stopped short of a full-throated endorsement of the demonstrations. He has said that he believes some governors have “gone too far” in restricting public movement and economic activity, even as his own medical and scientific advisors have continued to advocate for restrictions to remain.
Mainstream Republican supporters of reopening the economy argue that the public health benefits of social distancing are not worth the economic damage they cause. The damage to the global economy from COVID-19 is undeniably catastrophic: U.S. unemployment has surged to 22 million, wiping out a decade’s worth of economic gains. But public health experts say that prematurely easing restrictions will cause a glut of cases that will overwhelm the public health system and force restrictions to resume — potentially at an even greater economic cost. Researchers at Harvard University estimate that U.S. testing needs to triple before the country can safely reopen.
Still, some southern states have moved to reopen businesses. Governors in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee on Monday made announcements relaxing restrictions, in some cases beginning as soon as this week.
Asked if he was concerned about the protesters spreading COVID-19 to others, Trump said “No.”
“These are people expressing their views,” he told reporters Friday. “They seem to be very responsible people to me…They’ve been treated a little bit rough.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top government official on infectious diseases, warned Monday on “Good Morning America” that the protests would “backfire” and delay economic recovery by allowing COVID-19 to spread more widely.
“Clearly this is something that is hurting from the standpoint of economics and the standpoint of things that have nothing to do with the virus, but unless we get the virus under control, the real recovery economically is not going to happen," Fauci said.
"So what you do if you jump the gun and go into a situation where you have a big spike, you’re going to set yourself back," he said. "So as painful as it is to go by the careful guidelines of gradually phasing into a reopening, it’s going to backfire. That’s the problem."