Battle lines are being drawn in Wisconsin over lifting the quarantines enacted to control the spread of COVID-19.
In cities across the nation, beginning with rallies on the weekend of April 17, an emerging protest movement has stoked anger over lockdowns that demonstrators see as government overreach.
Now, protesters say they're coming to Madison today with a big show of strength, unlike a rally there the week before, which attracted scant participation.
Despite being denied a permit, the organizers of “Wisconsin Freedom Rally” plan to bring potentially thousands of protesters to the grounds of the Capitol. More than 3,300 people on a now-deleted Facebook page said they planned to attend the rally, and 12,000 said they were interested.
A Milwaukee rally is planned for today in front of the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center. Milwaukee police also refused to give organizers a permit.
The timing is bad. The state just recorded its largest two-day increase in new infections since the pandemic reached Wisconsin.
Regardless, demonstrators will demand the reopening of businesses and a return to “normal” life, despite stern warnings against such a move from medical experts. The state has not met any of the criteria set by the CDC or the White House for ending the shutdowns.
Trump boosted the protests in a series of three tweets, but right-wing groups are doing much more. They are hijacking the movement to professionalize it and to focus it on states with Democratic governors.
The Convention of States, a tea party-linked operation, is among several national conservative groups, including FreedomWorks, that are helping to organize rallies across the country, including the one today in Madison.
Politico reports that the Convention of States is buying up URLs, such as OpenWINow.com, to fuel the movement's growth and make it appear more legitimate. The group is urging demonstrators to wear masks and maintain social distancing. And to leave their firearms at home.
Legitimizing the rallies might not be easy. Extreme right-wing causes, including gun-toting White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and militia groups, are off-putting. MAGA hats and pro-Trump signs politicize the gatherings. Sometimes they look like Trump rallies, which is mostly what they're becoming.
Most of the events have drawn counter-protesters — expect them in Madison — and they provide the coronavirus with excellent opportunities to find new hosts. Medical experts fear the rallies could set off a new round of infections.
An uphill battle
Polls consistently find overwhelming support for leaving the decision to lift lockdown restrictions up to health officials and governors.
Perhaps Wisconsin protesters have been invigorated by Gov. Tony Evers’ announcement that he’s extending his “Safer at Home” order until May 26. The order originally was set to expire on April 24.
“Safer at Home” allows only essential businesses, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, to remain open. The rallies defy the order in a showy way.
"Safer at Home" forbids gatherings of more than 10 people and requires people to maintain “social distancing” of at least six feet from others, except for their immediate families.
Personal protective equipment, such as face masks and medical gloves, are recommended.
Evers plans to re-open business in stages, allowing experts to evaluate the impact of one stage before hazarding another and ultimately returning to business as usual. Golf courses, for instance, re-open this weekend.
State Republicans, led by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate president Scott Fitzgerald, filed for an injunction this week against Evers’ expansion of the shutdown. Their case will be presented next week to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where Republican-backed justices have a 4-2 majority.
The conservative justices have received large campaign donations from some of the the businesses and groups that back lifting the program.
The court will not meet in real time to hear arguments. The justices, like lawmakers, are conducting their meetings online.
Republican state leaders have been ridiculed as hypocrites for pushing to lift restrictions while working from the safety of their homes. They recently announced they’re moving the state’s Republican convention from May to July, due to COVID-19.