Thousands converge to protest Michigan governor's stay-home order in 'Operation Gridlock'

LANSING, Mich. – Demonstrators drove thousands of vehicles – many draped with protest signs – to Michigan's state Capitol on Wednesday, loudly protesting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order intended to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Police watched as horns honked and commercial and private vehicles from around the state jammed Capitol Avenue and other streets surrounding Michigan's seat of government in Lansing.

"Liberty once lost is lost forever," read a sign draped across a commercial van. "Security without liberty is called prison," read another, stretched across the Capitol's front lawn. "Recall Whitmer," a third sign said.

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Whitmer said Wednesday she respects the right to protest but believes many of the protesters put themselves and others at risk of contracting COVID-19.

"I was really disappointed to see people congregating and not wearing masks," Whitmer said.

She said she saw one person "handing out candy with bare hands."

“We know that this demonstration is going to come at a cost to people’s health," Whitmer said. "When people gather that way without masks ... that’s how COVID-19 spreads.

"The sad irony here is that ... they don’t like being in this stay-at-home order and they may have just created the need to lengthen it, which is something we’re trying to avoid at all costs.”

Organizers said they expected thousands of vehicles, and those projections appeared accurate.

Lt. Darren Green of the Michigan State Police estimated several thousand cars were part of the demonstration, with 100 to 150 people on the Capitol lawn. Green said traffic was backed up for more than a mile around the Capitol in several directions.

“They’re doing a pretty good job of maintaining social distance," Green said. "They’re being respectful and not causing any issues at all.”

Still, many on the sidewalks were passing close to each other, and most were not wearing masks.

Neither the Michigan State Police nor the Lansing Police Department had reported any arrests by 2 p.m local time.

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Stay-home order financially crippling for some

Justin Heyboer of Alto, Michigan, an owner of Wildwood Family Farms, said his family has been in business for four generations and the order is financially crippling on several fronts. The company does landscaping, has greenhouses, hosts weddings and has a liquor license, he said.

"This is our busiest time of year," said Heyboer, who drove to Lansing for the demonstration dubbed "Operation Gridlock" because organizers said they wanted to gain attention by tying up traffic.

"I'd rather die from the coronavirus than see a generational company be gone."

Heyboer later said he feels very strongly about the stay-home order but wished he had chosen different words to express that.

Justin Heyboer
Justin Heyboer

Meshawn Maddock, a board member of the Michigan Conservative Coalition, the nonprofit group that organized the protest, said the demonstration should send a strong message to the governor that it is time to allow Michiganders to return to work, in cases where they can do so safely.

"All of these people still have to go home to the sober reality that they don't have income coming in," Maddock said. "It's heartbreaking."

Maddock said the rising curve of COVID-19 infections has already been flattened, and it is time to get Michigan back to work and recreation, especially in areas of the state that have been less hard-hit.

State infection numbers appeared to flatten somewhat going into last weekend, but both infection and death numbers were up again on Monday. Health officials have recently expressed cautious optimism but have added that it is too soon to say that the infection has reached its peak in Michigan.

A van is decorated for Wednesday's vehicle protest in front of the Capitol.
A van is decorated for Wednesday's vehicle protest in front of the Capitol.

Maddock said the order has wide-ranging effects, including creating difficulties obtaining medical treatment for those with non-coronavirus related medical problems.

"It feels like the governor is doing this more almost like a publicity stunt," Maddock said. "It also feels like she's mocking Michiganders."

Kelly Dean a teacher from Lansing joins protesters as they block traffic around the Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing on April 15, 2020.
Kelly Dean a teacher from Lansing joins protesters as they block traffic around the Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing on April 15, 2020.

Whitmer has been criticized by Republicans for making numerous national TV appearances during the pandemic, which have included criticism of President Donald Trump and his administration's response to the pandemic.

Laura Cox, the chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, has accused Whitmer, who is a national co-chair of Joe Biden's Democratic presidential campaign, of auditioning for a spot as his running mate.

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Whitmer has rejected those allegations, saying she is driven by scientific data and the advice of health professionals and is focused on saving lives. She has noted that Michigan has the third-highest number of coronavirus deaths in the nation and that in the absence of adequate testing, social distancing is the most effective way of slowing the spread. She also said that each national TV appearance has resulted in more help for Michigan in obtaining needed supplies such as ventilators and surgical masks.

The governor has also said that the demonstration does not violate the stay-at-home order, but she called on Wednesday's protesters to act safely so as not to increase the infection rate or put police or other first responders at risk.

Whitmer declared a state of emergency in Michigan on March 10 and announced a "stay-at-home" order March 23 that directed residents to stay inside, except for essential purposes, and told businesses deemed nonessential to stop calling employees in to work. Last week, she extended that order until May 1, while imposing tougher restrictions on nonessential travel and some retail outlets.

Two Realtors from Jackson, Michigan, Rhonda Miles and DeAnn Gumbert, attended the demonstration and both said they believed they would be able to continue showing houses if Michigan followed federal social distancing guidelines.

"I'm just ready to go back to work," said Gumbert, who said she has sold a few homes, but only with great difficulty, since the executive order forced her to show homes virtually, using photographs and video.

Miles said she is concerned that offers to purchase will be withdrawn because interested buyers are unable to personally visit and inspect the homes.

Protesters disrupt Kentucky briefing

In Kentucky, meanwhile, dozens of protesters gathered on the lawn of the Capitol in Frankfurt on Wednesday afternoon to denounce Gov. Andy Beshear’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The protesters could be heard inside the Capitol, where Beshear was giving his daily coronavirus briefing at 5 p.m.

​A common theme at the protest was the notion that businesses in Kentucky should reopen in defiance of Beshear’s order for them to temporarily stay closed.

Protesters, some of who appeared to be standing less than 6 feet apart from one another, chanted "we want to work" and "facts over fear." They chanted non-stop throughout Beshear's one-hour press briefing, switching up chants and occasionally sounding a horn.

Beshear acknowledged the protesters and said that "there's some noise in the background."

"We do have some folks up in here in Kentucky today – and everybody should be able to express their opinion – that believe we should reopen Kentucky immediately, right now," Beshear said. "Folks, that would kill people. That would absolutely kill people."

There have also been protests elsewhere around the country this week, including

Contributing: Kathleen Gray, Detroit Free Press; Morgan Watkins, Louisville Courier Journal

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Lansing, Michigan protest: Demonstrations against Gov. Whitmer's order