While many Americans are filled with fear, Melissa Ackison says the coronavirus pandemic has filled her with anger. The stay-at home orders are government overreach, the conservative Ohio state Senate candidate says, and the labeling of some workers as "essential" arbitrary.
"It enrages something inside of you," said Ackison, who was among those who protested Republican Gov. Mike DeWine's orders at the statehouse in Columbus with her 10-year-old son. She has "no fear whatsoever" of contracting the virus, she said Thursday, dismissing it as hype.
The Ohio protest was among a growing number staged outside governors' mansions and state Capitols across the country. In places like Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia, small-government groups, supporters of President Donald Trump, anti-vaccine advocates, gun rights backers and supporters of right-wing causes have united behind a deep suspicion of efforts to shut down daily life to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As their frustration with life under lockdown grows, they've started to openly defy the social distancing rules in an effort to put pressure on governors to ease them.
Some of the protests have been small events, promoted via Facebook groups that have popped up in recent days and whose organizers are sometimes difficult to identify. Others are backed by groups funded by prominent Republicans donors, some with ties to Trump. The largest so far, a rally of thousands that jammed the streets of Lansing, Michigan, on Wednesday, looked much like one of the president's rallies — complete with MAGA hats or Trump flags — or one of the tea party rallies from a decade ago.
The signs of frustration come as Trump has pushed for easing stay-at-home orders and tried to look ahead to restarting the economy. He unveiled a framework for governors to follow on Thursday, but acknowledged the governors will have the final say on when their state is ready. Health experts have warned that lifting restrictions too quickly could result in a surge of new cases of the virus.
But the president and some of his supporters are impatient. Thousands of people in their cars packed the streets of Lansing to protest Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order and other restrictions. Outside the Capitol, some chanted "Lock her up," a throwback to Trump's calls during the 2016 election about his rival Hillary Clinton. One woman held a sign reading "Heil Whitmer."
Asked about the protesters, Trump on Thursday expressed sympathy with their frustration — "They're suffering ... they want to get back" — and dismissed concerns about the health risks of ignoring state orders and potentially exposing themselves to the virus.
"I think they're listening. I think they listen to me," he said. "They seem to be protesters that like me and respect this opinion, and my opinion's the same as just about all of the governors. Nobody wants to stay shut."
Polls show the protesters' views are not widely held. An AP-NORC survey earlier this month found large majorities of Americans support a long list of government restrictions, including closing schools, limiting gatherings and shuttering bars and restaurants. Three-quarters of Americans backed requiring people to stay in their homes. And majorities of both Democrats and Republicans gave high marks for the state and city governments.
But the protests expose resilient partisan divisions, particularly in battleground Michigan. The protest there was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a group founded by a pro-Trump state representative and his wife, Meshawn Maddock, who is on the advisory board for an official Trump campaign group called "Women for Trump" and is also the co-founder of Michigan Trump Republicans. Their daughter is a field organizer for the Michigan Republican Party.
Another group that promoted the event, the Michigan Freedom Fund, is run by Greg McNeilly, a longtime political adviser to the DeVos family, who are prolific Republican donors and have funded conservative causes across the state for decades. McNeilly was campaign manager for Dick DeVos, the husband of current U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, during his failed bid for governor in 2006. The group, which does not have to disclose its donors, raised over $4 million in 2018, according to its most recent tax statements.
Whitmer was among the governors who expressed concern about the gatherings, saying it put people at risk and could have prolonged the shutdown. Michigan had recorded over 2,000 deaths from COVID-19 as of Thursday, and close to 30,000 confirmed cases of people infected with the virus. Roughly one-quarter of the state's workforce has filed for unemployment.
But it's not just Democratic governors feeling the heat. A procession of cars swarmed around the Republican-dominated statehouse in Oklahoma City on Wednesday, with messages written on windows or signs that said "stop killing our economy," "we need our church" and "time 2 work."
Carol Hefner, who previously served as an Oklahoma co-chair of Trump's 2016 campaign, was a major organizer of the event. Hefner, whose husband is part of the Hefner Energy empire and currently operates a company that makes Argentinian meat sauce, differentiated it from many of the others, characterizing it as a "rally" rather than a protest.
"We're not New York. Their problems are not out problems," said Hefner. "We are rallying around our governor and our state to encourage the opening up of our businesses and the restoration of our state in a timely fashion."
Other gatherings have links to fringe groups. A protest Thursday in the Texas capital of Austin, where protesters chanted "Free Texas" and "Make America Free Again," was broadcast live by InfoWars TV, part of a company owned by conspiracy theorist and radio host Alex Jones.
The Ohio event earlier this week brought together a collection of anti-vaccine advocates, Second Amendment supporters, tea party activists and other anti-government activists. A Columbus Dispatch photo of Ackison and other protesters yelling through glass doors of the statehouse rocketed around the internet.
Ackison said that while she views DeWine's efforts as constitutional overreach, she would be fine if Trump were to act with similar authority to force governors to bring the states back on line.
"As patriots, we put President Trump in office for a reason," she said. "If he's not able to give a convincing enough argument to these governors that they need to open up, then he needs to do something to take action."
The protests were advertised on Facebook by groups such as Reopen Virginia and End the Lockdown PA. A protest in Richmond, Virginia, on Thursday grew out of a conversation in the Facebook group Virginians for Medical Freedom, organizer Gary Golden said. The group often turns out at the Capitol in Richmond to oppose vaccine-related measures.
Kelly Mullin, who stood near a "don't tread on me" flag spread on the grass near the governor's mansion, said she brought her sons to the event to teach them a lesson about liberty.
Mullin said that she thought the risk posed by the coronavirus depends on an individual's health and that people can take basic steps to protect themselves, including getting enough sleep, eating organic produce and getting outside.
"I mean, that's where our tax dollars should be going. Eat broccoli," she said.
Infectious-disease specialists say there is no evidence that eating specific foods can prevent or kill the virus. Most people with the coronavirus experience mild or moderate symptoms, and people with health issues such as asthma and older people are at greater risk of death from COVID-19.
Associated Press writers Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Va., Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City, Okla., David Eggert in Lansing, Mich., and Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., contributed to this report.