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Protesters once again descended on the Virginia state capital of Richmond on Wednesday to demand Gov. Ralph Northam ease the state’s lockdown orders amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The ReOpen Virginia protest is the second demonstration in Virginia against the stay-at-home orders in as many weeks, and comes as similar events – mostly organized by conservative groups – have rocked state capitals across the country.
The protest on Wednesday in Richmond was a “drive-in rally” similar to one last week in Michigan. While organizers estimated that several thousand people would descend on the Virginia capital, it is difficult to estimate the turnout as people chose to protest from the relative safety of their cars and trucks.
As the rally geared up, a steady stream of cars – horns blaring -- could be seen driving the state capitol building in Richmond with placards reading “Reopen Virginia, Shut Down Northam” and “It’s The Constitution, Not Toilet Paper” hanging from the sides. There were also reports of a number of protesters taking to the street on foot.
Over the last two weeks, protests in state capitals from Richmond to Sacramento have become an almost daily occurrence as upset Americans voice their anger for their state’s stay-at-home and social distancing orders that, while having been credited for helping contain the spread of the novel coronavirus and saving lives, has also caused the U.S. economy to come to a virtual standstill.
The federal government said last Thursday that 5.2 million more Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the four-week total to about 22 million out of a workforce of 159 million — easily the worst stretch of U.S. job losses on record. The losses translate to about one in seven workers.
The protests, which have cropped up in almost 40 states across the country with more expected to follow, have also received the support of President Trump and his administration even as he publicly advises Americans to continue practicing social distancing as the country battles the contagion.
“LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” Trump said in a tweet-storm in over the weekend in which he also lashed out at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, for criticizing the federal response.
Attorney General William Barr has also weighed in on the protests, and more specifically the lockdown orders implemented by certain governors.
In an appearance on Hugh Hewitt’s radio program, Barr specified some of the legal issues raised by state orders – likening some to "house arrest" – and how they could lead the federal government to get involved.
“Our federal constitutional rights don’t go away in an emergency. They constrain what the government can do,” Barr said in the Tuesday interview. “And in a circumstance like this, they put on the government the burden to make sure that whatever burdens it’s putting on our constitutional liberties are strictly necessary to deal with the problem. They have to be targeted. They have to use less intrusive means if they are equally effective in dealing with the problem. “
He added: “That’s the situation we’re in today. We’re moving into a period where we have to do a better job of targeting the measures we’re deploying to deal with this virus.”
The attorney general warned that while some state orders may still be necessary, others may go too far, given that states are seeing progress toward the goal of reducing the spread of the virus.
“The idea that you have to stay in your house is disturbingly close to house arrest,” Barr said. “I’m not saying it wasn’t justified. I’m not saying in some places it might still be justified. But it’s very onerous, as is shutting down your livelihood. So these are very, very burdensome impingements on liberty, and we adopted them, we have to remember, for the limited purpose of slowing down the spread, that is bending the curve. ... And we are now seeing that these are bending the curve, and now we have to come up with more targeted approaches.”
Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has become the main scapegoat for protesters after she implemented what are arguably the strictest lockdown measures of any states - prohibiting not just public gatherings, but private ones as well, regardless of size or family ties, and stopping residents from visiting family or friends with exceptions for providing care.
“Quarantine is when you restrict movement of sick people. Tyranny is when you restrict the movement of healthy people,” Meshawn Maddock, an organizer of the “Operation Gridlock” protest with the Michigan Conservative Coalition, told Fox News. “Every person has learned a harsh lesson about social distancing. We don’t need a nanny state to tell people how to be careful.”
Whitmer has defended her move, and argued that she enforced stricter measures because Michigan has been hit particularly hard by the contagion and that the orders are a way to flatten the curve.
“Michigan right now has the third-highest death count in the country; we are the 10th largest state, as you can deduce this means we have a uniquely hard issue going on here,” Whitmer said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It is disproportionately hurting our state and that is why we need to take a uniquely aggressive action to protect people.”
There is also concern by lawmakers and public health officials that these protests could actually cause more people to become sick with COVID-19 – thus worsening the pandemic and causing stay-at-home orders to be maintained even longer.
Kentucky witnessed its highest daily spike in coronavirus cases Sunday, just days after hundreds of protesters gathered outside the state capitol building to call for Gov. Andy Beshear to end a statewide lockdown.
Though protest organizers asked participants last week to remain six feet apart, most demonstrators eventually bunched together outside on the lawn, shouting for the governor to “Open up Kentucky,” according to the newspaper. Some – but not all – protesters wore face masks.
Fox News’ Garrett Tenney, Ronn Blitzer and Danielle Wallace contributed to this report.