In the shadow of a statue of Abraham Lincoln — and the shadow of hundreds of deaths across her home state and tens of thousands of dead the United States — Illinois music teacher and mother of three Ashley McLemore recently led about 50 others outside the state’s capitol building in Springfield.
The group, part of a string of headline-grabbing if intermittent protests, was speaking out about what McLemore calls “crazy” stay-home regulations imposed on residents because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
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They aren’t the only ones that feel this way: While polling shows social distancing remains broadly popular to stop coronavirus infections, pockets of protestors have become more and more vocal in recent days — sometimes staging militaristic displays of their displeasure, complete with guns and even guillotines.
Such opposition is the most vivid example of a larger debate playing out nationwide.
The health risk from the coronavirus remains urgent, but some states’ residents (and local leaders) are grappling with the tricky question of how quickly to return to normal after a month of staying indoors. Last week, for example, Georgia allowed businesses to start reopening with restrictions — despite more than 20,000 confirmed cases of the virus.
Health officials say the shelter-in-place orders, however burdensome, are there to save lives.
The orders need to stay in place longer in some states in order to slow the virus’ spread and ease the burden on hospitals while researchers work on treatments and a vaccine, officials say. The risk of rushing too quickly back to normalcy could mean a resurgence of infections and more dead.
The most vulnerable groups are people over 65 and those with underlying health conditions. Experts have repeatedly stressed that, given how contagious the virus is, if it were left to spread unchecked it could kill hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. — at least. Data suggests a significant share of cases may be asymptomatic, meaning people can infect others without realizing it and may give the virus to someone at risk.
But for those people who have either lost their job or lost their sense of daily routine, they say the lockdown has already gone on too long.
The reasons for the unrest vary: Some cite the economic damage of social distancing versus the threat of illness and death; others are more direct and chafe at the government intrusion. Even President Donald Trump has weighed in, offering contradictory feelings.
“This has become a much bigger deal than just, ‘Oh, I have to shut down for a couple of weeks,’ ” McLemore, the 33-year-old small business owner, tells PEOPLE. “This has turned into this extreme government overreach.”
Thousands joined a highway caravan that drove to the capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, earlier this month and protests in Austin, Texas, featured far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones sticking his head out from the moonroof of an armored pickup truck and encouraging protesters with a megaphone.
Despite some attendees coming armed, the demonstrations haven’t been heated. But some health experts believe the risk is simply in gathering at all, instead of practicing social distancing.
Government guidelines say to avoid public groups and to keep a six-foot distance between yourself and others while also recommending an increased use of hand washing and wearing a face covering when in public.
Photos from some protests, by contrast, show close groups and no masks — raising the specter of the infection spreading between attendees and then outward into the community once they all go back home.
“This is a highly contagious virus,” Dr. Birx, the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force coordinator, has said. “We don’t know by looking at someone if they have pre-existing conditions or not, so all of us as far as protecting others must continue to do all of the recommendations to ensure that when we are in an asymptomatic state we’re not passing the virus to others.”
Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, warned that protesting would only prolong her state’s shutdown because gathering in public would help spread the virus. She was an early target of protestors because Michigan’s stay-home order is one of the strictest in the country.
Whitmer argued she was doing what was needed to save lives. More than 3,000 people have died there from the virus, out of more than 38,000 cases.
“[It’s] not a political decision, it’s about public health,” Whitmer said this month, according to local TV station WILX. “The enemy is the virus, not one another.”
The Washington Post reported that some of the biggest protests in the country weren’t being organized and promoted by grassroots activists like McLemore but rather were the work of conservative advocates from afar who used social media.
“It’s understandable that people are upset about the difficult situation we’re in, but they’re clearly being riled up by people with an obvious anti-government agenda,” Zachary Elwood, a software writer urging Facebook to crack down, told the Post. “Facebook shouldn’t make it so easy to do that.”
More than 100,000 people had joined a closed Facebook group called “Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine,” one of the pro-gun sponsored protests reported on by the Post.
The event page’s information leads potential protestors to a website for the Wisconsin Firearms Coalition website that’s “dedicated to defending and advancing the 2nd Amendment rights of all law abiding citizens in the state of Wisconsin.”
Those protests aren’t the same as the small protests organized by people like McLemore, she says — though they might be unintentionally inspired by them: McLemore was doing yoga and flipping through her phone at home with her husband when she came across a post about the protest in Lansing and became inspired to start her own.
“I came across this hashtag on Instagram called #OperationGridlock and I said, ‘What is this? I clicked on it and that’s when I saw what was happening in Lansing, Michigan,” McLemore says. “I flipped my phone around and I said, ‘Oh my gosh babe, you have to look at this.’ ”
That’s where McLemore says she learned about Whitmer ordering “these crazy regulations on the state.”
About 3,000 to 4,000 protestors gathered in Lansing to protest what they said were excessive restrictions on travel, certain kinds of recreation and shopping.
McLemore says she and others in neighboring Illinois felt the same about their state’s restrictions, so she started a Facebook event for a protest and began posting.
A day later, on April 17, Trump tweeted a call to “LIBERATE” three states with Democratic governors, including Michigan, while political allies like conservative economist Stephen Moore have called the protestors “the modern-day Rosa Parks.”
Elsewhere, Trump has also praised the protestors, saying earlier this month: “These are great people. … They’ve got cabin fever. They want to get back. They want their life back.” At the same time, he’s expressed displeasure with Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, moving to reopen the state ahead of much of the rest of the country.
The president’s support has given the protests a right-wing twist, though some insist it’s not about politics at all.
“I don’t consider myself a Republican or a Democrat,” McLemore tells PEOPLE. “I’m a constitutionalist, which means I believe in everybody’s rights no matter where you stand. I think everyone has the right to make their own choices for themselves and the government doesn’t need to be there to be our mom and dad.”
In Madison, Wisconsin, the state last week said it was preparing for “thousands” of people to protest Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ shelter-in-place orders while protests have continued in other states like North Carolina.
Evers, like Gov. Whitmer in Michigan, has said he supports citizens exercising their right to protest as long as they do so responsibly and adhere to social distancing recommendations.
Wisconsin capitol police told PEOPLE last week they would be on hand; and the Madison police said they would also be on-call for any assistance.
“At the end of the day, it’s a law enforcement issue and I believe law enforcement will handle it appropriately,” Gov. Evers said.
Some displays have been met with their own counter-protests, including a viral moment in Denver showing two healthcare workers standing in front of protesters in their cars.
Austin police said they issued no citations and made no arrests during the recent protest with Alex Jones.
Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain tells PEOPLE the department has already given out personal protective equipment (PPE) to officers working during the pandemic and they routinely sanitize everything down to the seats in their police cars — the case was no different for last week’s protest, which reportedly drew “a few thousand” attendees.
“This virus is real. We know it is,” McLemore says, telling PEOPLE she believes that she, her husband and her three children all contracted the coronavirus in January and initially supported shutdown efforts before she says they went on too long and started killing “80 percent” of the business in her town.
Her children got so sick in January that McLemore says she needed to put them in the bathroom and “steam them” in order to get them to cough.
“They were having a very hard time breathing, they were crying because their chest hurt so bad,” she says. “All three ended up with double ear infections. They all three ended up with sinus infectious. My youngest, actually, started coughing up blood.”
McLemore herself woke up crying on Jan. 31 because her chest hurt so bad, she says.
“I thought, Oh my god, this is the worst cold I’ve ever had in my life,” she remembers. “Trust me, I know this is real. But at what point do we say shutting down the economy is a better decision than letting people chose for themselves to be out and about?”
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.