By Seth Herald
LANSING, Mich. (Reuters) – Thousands of demonstrators in cars with horns honking thronged around Michigan’s state Capitol on Wednesday, some chanting “lock her up,” to protest against stay-at-home orders imposed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to stop the coronavirus.
Traffic around the Lansing statehouse was jammed for hours by the rally, dubbed “Operation Gridlock” and organized by the Republican-aligned Michigan Conservative Coalition to challenge the Democratic governor’s social-distancing measures, among the strictest in the nation.
Michigan has faced one of the country’s fastest-growing infection rates for the new coronavirus, with more than 27,000 confirmed cases and nearly 1,800 deaths from COVID-19, the highly contagious lung disease caused by the virus.
But a backlash against Whitmer’s stay-at-home directive, which she last week extended through to the end of April while toughening the terms of the order, has taken on political overtones.
Critics of Whitmer, widely seen as a potential running mate for presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, object to what they call inconsistencies and over-reach in her response to the public health crisis.
Whitmer also is a co-chair of Biden’s campaign and previously drew national attention by trading jabs with Republican President Donald Trump over the spread of the coronavirus in her state.
The latest version of her executive order bars residents from travel between homes or using motorboats, and it prohibits retail sales of home furnishings, garden supplies or paint while leaving marijuana dispensaries open.
Michigan is one of 42 states where governors have ordered residents to remain indoors except for necessary outings like grocery shopping or doctor’s visits, while closing schools, universities and non-essential businesses.
Although the unprecedented restrictions have worked to curtail the spread of the virus, they also have strangled the economy, idling millions of workers, upending financial markets and leading to forecasts of a deep recession.
Trump, who before the pandemic had touted a vibrant U.S. economy as a pillar of his Nov. 3 re-election bid, has pressed for reopening commerce, despite health authorities warning that doing so prematurely risks a resurgence of the outbreak.
The debate over how and when to reopen the economy has led to friction between Trump and the states, particularly Democratic governors whom he branded as “mutineers.”
The boisterous but peaceful midday rally in Lansing drew at least 2,000 vehicles filled with protesters, their horns and car radios blaring.
About 100 emerged on foot – some draped in American flags or “Don’t Tread on Me” banners, some wearing red Trump 2020 campaign hats. They converged on the Capitol steps and surrounding the grounds, most without face coverings and none observing safe social-separation guidelines.
The crowd included militia members and individuals carrying assault-style rifles and other guns, a reflection of Michigan’s “open-carry” firearms laws. And there were shouts of “lock her up,” a chant that became a staple of Trump’s campaign rallies and originally referring to his 2016 Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
Appearing on CNN on Wednesday, Whitmer defended the stringent nature of her stay-at-home orders.
“We have to be really aggressive here to save lives,” she said.
(Reporting by Seth Herald in Lansing; Additional reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Robert Birsel)