Epidemiologist predicts ‘new epidemic surge’ as protesters across the US flout social distancing measures
Adam Gabbatt – The Guardian
People take part in a ‘reopen’ Pennsylvania demonstration in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on 20 April. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images
As healthcare workers in Colorado and Pennsylvania staged counter-protests against rightwing anti-quarantine rallies that continue to spread across the US, some experts warned such rallies could cause a surge in coronavirus cases.
Several nurses gathered in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on Monday, where a protest against stay-at-home orders was taking place. The nurses carried signs urging people to go home.
The SEIU Healthcare union said a number of nurses participated, a day after two healthcare workers in Denver blocked a similar protest in an action that went viral online.
Anti-lockdown rallies have also been seen in states including Texas, Wisconsin, Ohio, California and Minnesota. Some epidemiologists predict such protests could cause a surge in Covid-19 cases.
Video of the Harrisburg event showed many protesters defying social distancing recommendations.
On Sunday a rally in Olympia, Washington state, attracted more than 2,000 people, according to the Seattle Times. Photos showed hundreds standing in close proximity outside the state capitol.
Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and public health scientist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, tweeted: “2,500 anti-lockdown rally in Olympia, Washington.
“I predict a new epidemic surge (incubation time ~5-7 days before onset symptoms, if any, and transmission to associates around that time, even among asymptomatics)… so increase in 2-4 weeks from now.”
In pictures of the Olympia rally, one man held a sign that said: “Governmet [sic] isn’t the solution, you are!!” Another carried a sign that said: “No to 5G!”, probably referring a disproven conspiracy theory that the 5G wireless network is responsible for the virus.
Some Washington state representatives took part, including Jim Walsh, Vicki Kraft and Robert Sutherland. According to the Seattle Times, Sutherland appeared to have a handgun tucked into his pants and was particularly upset about a ban on recreational fishing.
“Governor, you send men with guns after us when we go fishing, we’ll see what a revolution looks like,” he said.
In Denver, as hundreds gathered in their cars to lament stay-at-home orders implemented by Colorado’s governor, Jared Polis, video and photographs showed two people dressed in medical scrubs standing in front of traffic.
Footage showed one worker being subjected to abuse. A middle-aged woman was seen leaning out of a car, waving a sign that said: “Land of the free.”
“This is a free country,” she shouted. “Land of the free. Go to China if you want communism. Go to China. You go to work, why can’t I go to work?”
In California, demonstrators converged on the state capitol in Sacramento on Monday, waving American flags and holding signs that ranged from “You Don’t Own Me” to “Give My Daughter Her Senior Year” to a Trump/Pence banner. Participants seen on a Facebook livestream were generally were not practicing physical distancing.
One livestreamer shouted that the California governor, Gavin Newsom, “is a dictator”. At his daily briefing, Newsom said he understood people’s anxiety. “But we must have a health-first focus if we’re ultimately going to come back economically.”
Many such events have been inspired by a Michigan protest that was planned by the Michigan Conservative Coalition (MCC) and the Michigan Freedom Fund (MFF), rightwing lobbying groups with links to the Trump administration.
Meshawn Maddock, a member of the advisory board of Women for Trump – an official arm of the president’s re-election campaign – is an MCC member and helped organize the protest at the Michigan state capitol in Lansing last Wednesday.
The MFF has received more than $500,000 from the family of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s education secretary. DeVos has personally donated $80,000 in the past four years.
Fox News helped bring the Lansing rally to a wider audience. On Friday, after a favorable broadcast, Trump tweeted: “Liberate Michigan!”
On Sunday, Trump defended the anti-stay-at-home protesters, many of whom have not followed federal or state social distancing guidelines.
“They’ve got cabin fever,” Trump told reporters at a White House briefing. “They want their lives back. These people love our country. They want to get back to work.”
Then on Monday evening at the White House briefing, the president took another tack, predicting a resurgence of the US economy as states move to reopen, but noting it should be done “with careful hygiene, social distancing and other measures”.
Moments later Dr Deborah Birx, the resource coordinator of the White House coronavirus taskforce and a regular presence at the daily briefings, said: “We have asked every governor, we have asked every American to follow federal government guidelines.”
Further anti-lockdown rallies are planned, including in Virginia, where the Virginia Citizens Defense League is helping organize a protest outside the state capitol.
On Monday, ABC News reported that Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, and North Carolina’s governor, Roy Cooper, had asked Mike Pence to stress the need for social distancing to be observed.
Whitmer reportedly said though people wanted to “do the wonderful American tradition of dissent and demonstration … it’s just so dangerous to do that”.
Vivian Ho contributed reporting