Thousands of demonstrators descended on the state Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, on Wednesday to protest Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's restrictive stay-at-home order, clogging the streets with their cars while scores ignored organizers' pleas to stay inside their vehicles.
The protest — dubbed "Operation Gridlock" — was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund, a DeVos family-linked conservative group. Protesters were encouraged to show up and cause traffic jams, honk and bring signs to display from their cars. Organizers wrote on Facebook: "Do not park and walk — stay in your vehicles!"
Many ignored the demand. Demonstrators, on foot, were seen waving American, "Don't Tread on Me" and Trump campaign flags. At least two Confederate flags were spotted.
Protesters could be heard chanting "Open up Michigan!" At one point, there was a "lock her up" chant in reference to Whitmer.
"We can get this rally done and stay within the social distancing guidelines,” Marian Sheridan, a Michigan Conservative Coalition co-founder, said in a statement ahead of the rally. "Citizens are frankly tired of being treated like babies. As adults, we now know what needs to be done to stay safe."
Speaking to NBC affiliate WOOD of Grand Rapids, one woman attending suggested she didn't entirely trust the social distancing recommendations being made by "the so-called scientists" like Dr. Anthony Fauci, adding that she believes "very strongly in herd immunity."
Tom Norton, a Republican running to unseat Rep. Justin Amash, who left the Republican Party last year, told WOOD that "the cure is worse than the disease," pointing to the impact of the shutdowns on small businesses and the potential for rising rates of depression and suicide.
The organizers' Facebook page was flooded with comments, both in support and against the protest.
"Can people PLEASE stay in their cars, and if they get out, to wear masks and practice social distancing?" one Facebook user posted. "The statists will use any excuse to discredit the protest, so please don't give them a freebie."
"The guys on the steps of the (Capitol) are putting this protest backwards," another wrote. "Now we are going to be portrayed as far right extremist. Thanks allot jerks...Stay in your dam car and put the freaking rifles away...You're going to ruin this for everyone!"
At her Wednesday press conference, Whitmer directly addressed the protesters saying she understands their "frustration" and is OK with people taking out their anger on her. But she mentioned health care workers and those who have lost loved ones to the virus and said those protesting need to understand how easy the disease can spread and that those who do die from it often have to be alone at the end.
"I respect your opinions," Whitmer said, adding, "I just urge you, don't put yourself at risk and don't put others at risk either."
She said she was "really disappointed" to see people congregating outside and not wearing masks. She also pointed to the Confederate flags that were waved at the rally and mentioned that one individual was even passing candy out to children. Additionally, she said untold numbers of people may have touched gas pumps to get to Lansing, potentially spreading infection.
"We know this rally endangered people," she said, adding that such activity "will put more people at risks and could prolong how long we need to be in this posture."
She said it was a "sad irony" that the protest may necessitate to a lengthening of the stay-at-home order.
Lt. Brian Oleksyk with the Michigan State Police told NBC News that between 3,000 and 4,000 people attended the event and "for the majority, the protest is peaceful at this time and has been," adding that most "have been following the social distancing." Only one arrest has so far been made, and no violations of the executive order have been issued.
He also said protesters should not block any significant roadways near the hospital, as posts on social media showed one area hospital being clogged by cars. Local public transit announced on Twitter its service was disrupted downtown and in nearby areas because of the gridlock and that it was "unable to accommodate life-sustaining and medically necessary trips to or from these areas."
The protests came after Whitmer last week signed one of the nation's most restrictive orders aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 in Michigan — one of the nation's hardest hit states.
More than 27,000 cases have been confirmed in the state with at least 1,700 deaths. In Wayne County, home to Detroit, 820 people have died, per a Johns Hopkins University tracker. Wayne County has more deaths than any county in the U.S. outside of New York state.
The order contained several provisions that were unpopular with some Michiganders, such as barring in-state travel to vacation residences and a tightening of business restrictions that included large stores having to close areas "dedicated to carpeting, flooring, furniture, garden centers, plant nurseries, or paint." State Republican lawmakers said the order unnecessarily curtailed freedoms and harmed businesses.
But it was difficult to completely divorce the backlash from partisan politics, as Whitmer, a Democrat, had in recent weeks become a visible leader among the governors responding to the coronavirus outbreak, garnering attention from Joe Biden as a possible running mate and tangling with President Donald Trump. The pushback has been fanned by prominent national conservatives and elected leaders, and some misinformation about the order has circulated.
On Monday, Whitmer spent much of her news conference addressing the backlash, saying every action she's taking is centered on flattening the state's curve of infections. The latest order was signed with the aim of curbing foot traffic in stores and preventing the outbreak focused in the state's southeastern corner from spreading quickly through the northern and more rural parts of the state, where the health system is not well equipped for a major outbreak.
"It's OK to be frustrated. It's OK to be angry," Whitmer added. “If it makes you (feel) better to direct it at me, that's OK, too. I've got thick skin. And I'm always going to defend your right to free speech."
In a recent court filing, Whitmer acknowledged the right to protest amid the stay-at-home order.
Speaking with NBC's "Today Show" on Wednesday, Whitmer said more robust testing is needed in her state before things can begin to be opened up. Amid outrage over the shutdown of golf and gardening, Whitmer pointed to snow falling across Michigan Wednesday, adding that a "couple more weeks is not going to meaningfully impact people's ability to do so" because the weather was already playing its part.
The Michigan brouhaha comes amid a larger national debate over how to reopen parts of the economy while keeping the outbreak at bay. In the northeast, seven states have banded together to come up with a regional plan for doing so, as have the three states along the Pacific coast. Trump, meanwhile, has launched a task force to come up with such plans and work alongside state leaders.
Asked about Whitmer's order on Monday, Trump said "its a very strong position to take. But they're making a lot of progress in Michigan, so let's see how it all works out."
Michigan isn't the only place where such protests have taken place this week. On Monday, about 100 protesters gathered outside the Ohio statehouse in Columbus to push for Republican Gov. Mike DeWine to reopen the state. And in Raleigh, more than 100 protesters gathered to protest Democratic North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper's stay at home order. At least one protester was charged with violating Cooper's order. That event was organized by a group called ReopenNC.
"Some people want to completely obliterate these restrictions," Cooper said at a Monday press conference. "It would be a catastrophe."