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Thousands of protesters gathered outside of the Wisconsin state Capitol Friday asking the state to lift its stay-at-home order aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus in the latest of protests that have swept the country, with especially large rallies in Minnesota, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
The Wisconsin rally Friday drew fewer demonstrators than the Minnesota, Michigan and Pennsylvania rallies, but had enough protesters to cover the steps of the Capitol with people who were not social distancing or wearing masks. The protesters were advocating against a stay-at-home order issued by Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, which he last week extended to at least May 26.
"Wisconsin can't stay closed forever. We need to force our leaders to start listening not just to 'the experts['], but also to the citizens who are being devastated by government policies," the description of a Facebook group touting the rally said.
The Hill reported this week that the Wisconsin Department of Administration denied a permit to hold the rally, but it went on anyway.
"We understand people’s frustration. It’s very real," Wisconsin Lieutenant Gov. Mandela Barnes told Madison 365 this week when asked about the protest. "But we also have our frontline workers who are still going to work every day, despite the challenges. And these people are already putting their lives at risk … people who are working hard every day. Our health care professionals, nurses, grocery store workers, police, EMTs … what (protesters) are calling for is the compromised safety of those front-line individuals."
In the face of officials telling people to stay home, crowds congregated in Wisconsin's capital of Madison Friday, lambasting the stay-at-home order and raising concerns about businesses being forced to close.
Protesters carrying Gadsden flags and American flags chanted "USA, USA."
One protester had a sign with an image of Gov. Evers' face, captioned "non-essential."
Another sign read "better to die on your feet than live on your knees. Stand for the constitution."
Yet another read "[q]uarantine is when you restrict the movement of sick people. Tyranny is when you restrict the movement of healthy people."
One speaker was John Baker, who is running for Congress in Wisconsin's First Congressional District. He listed off a number of pandemics that had happened within his lifetime before comparing the responses to those pandemics with the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
"I am 63 years old ... out of all these pandemics that I lived through, never once did they shut down our schools. Never once were we confined to our house," he said.
"One has to wonder, is this as bad as it is?" Baker pondered. "I have a compromised immune system, so I should be the first one to be concerned ... I have never taken any precautions ... I'm saying that's my choice."
Another speaker, who identified herself as a small business owner, talked about the burden on small businesses that have been declared nonessential before imploring Evers to end the shutdown.
"Governor Evers, end this nightmare. We need to open the doors to our businesses now," she said. Protesters followed those comments by chanting, "Open up, open up."
Yet another speaker who said she is a nurse noted that the coronavirus is dangerous and many people at the rally could potentially know someone who has caught it. But, she asked, "are the actions taken being justified?"
"No!" the crowd responded.
"Are the consequences of it justified by the severity of it?" she asked. "How many freedoms are you willing to hand over to the government to save your health?"
"No!" the protesters answered to the former. "None!" they said to the latter.
The protest movement those in Wisconsin joined Friday started with demonstrations in North Carolina and Michigan, and has now spread to New York, Ohio, Virginia and more with more protests slated for the coming days even as federal and state officials are warning that rolling back virus mitigation efforts too soon will lead to even more coronavirus cases and set back the nation's response to the pandemic.
Those protesters have largely been from the conservative side of the political spectrum, often wearing "Make America Great Again" hats and toting Trump flags. But Trump himself has released guidelines that would reopen the country slowly.
"We can begin the next front in our war, which we are calling 'Opening Up America Again,'" Trump said during a press briefing at the White House last week as he unveiled his plan to reopen the economy. "To preserve the health of Americans, we must preserve the health of our economy."
But, he added: "We are not opening all at once, but one careful step at a time."
Still, Trump tweeted support for multiple rallies in states run by Democratic governors, as Wisconsin is.
"LIBERATE MINNESOTA!" one read. "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" read another. "LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!" a third said.
But even states with Republican governors have cautioned against opening up their economies immediately.
Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, while previewing an executive order he later issued to help reopen the Texas economy, said it would not be "a rush the gates, everybody is able to suddenly reopen all at once. We have to understand that we must reopen in a way in which we are able to stimulate the economy while at the very same time ensuring that we contain the spread of COVID-19."
Fox News' Andrew O'Reilly and Nick Givas contributed to this report.