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Protesters Of Safer-At-Home Gather At Wisconsin Capitol

Updated at 2:57 p.m. CT  

Hundreds of people demonstrating against the Evers administration’s safer-at-home order gathered outside the Wisconsin Capitol on Friday, ignoring social distancing recommendations and crowding together on the steps of the state Capitol.

There were lots of American flags and anti-Evers signs. Some people were sporting Trump gear and signs. 

Credit Maayan Silver
During Friday's protest, a car was decked out with Trump flags and American flags.

Some people wore masks or bandannas per guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But many did not.

Credit Maayan Silver
Protesters in Madison on Friday. One sign reads "freedom over safety."

While there was a large crowd of people protesting on the Capitol's front lawn, there were protesters who were social distancing — on the outskirts of the Capitol sidewalk or in their cars.

Traffic was moving very slowly around the Capitol Square during the protest, some cars honking loudly at times.

Credit Maayan Silver
Some protesters opted to stay inside their cars.

Some health care workers staged a small counter-protest, with one woman holding a sign saying, “Please go home.”

Credit Maayan Silver
Protesters carry signs on Friday in Madison.

The event was expected to be among the biggest of the protests that have popped up around the U.S. in recent days. But as with some earlier events, one group will be noticeably absent: the state's most prominent Republicans. That included Sen. Ron Johnson, a Trump ally, who was sheltering in place at home in Oshkosh, about 90 miles from Madison.

Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature have asked the state supreme court to rule that Gov. Tony Evers can’t extend the order from Friday to May 26. Around the United States, people — many supporters of President Trump or with conservative or libertarian views — have rallied against similar stay-at-home orders.

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Ahead of the protest, we spoke with people planning to attend, like Michelle Tahtinen. She's a stay-at-home mom in Hammond, Wis., a rural area about 40 miles east of Eau Claire.

“We will be in our vehicle, in the gridlock, honking and trying to bring attention to 'we need the change,' ” Tahtinen says.

She says she's not to protesting the safety measures put in place. Tahtinen says Evers' safer-at-home order is a sweeping and improper imposition on people.

“I would like for us to decide as an individual, like the Constitution gives us our freedom, instead of everybody being locked down when my household is not at-risk of the demographic," she says.

Tahtinen says she understands older and immunosuppressed people are at higher risk but says they can make the choice to stay in. She says the issue should also be addressed by region, and that in areas with few positive cases and deaths, there’s no reason for shelter in place.

Zach Anderson of Menomonie, Wis., about 24 miles west of Eau Claire, also plans to attend the rally. He thinks the government shouldn't lock people down.

“I'm not saying that it's a bad idea to wear masks or anything like that. I think the masks are great. I think COVID can definitely be dangerous. I'm fine with anyone who wants to stay, that's totally fine. I just don't think the government should be mandating what people can or can't do or who is essential and who isn't, those kinds of things," Anderson says.

He says the government should offer lots of recommendations for businesses and individuals but shouldn’t mandate any of it.

Some people planning to attend the rally cite the economic impact of the safer-at-home order. Nadine Dentice is a mom from Milwaukee who was laid off as a result of Evers’ measure.

“Many people are living paycheck to paycheck, and they're losing everything and then they're going to be blamed when they can't pay their bills because they should have prepared better? Who can prepare for this?" she says.

Dentice says she has friends who have small businesses who aren’t going to make it through the next two weeks. She wants the immediate reopening of nonessential businesses — subject to individuals’ comfort levels.

"If you don't feel comfortable, then don't do it. You don't have to if you are concerned about your safety and the safety of others, stay inside. If you are concerned about the safety of others because of your business, don't open your business," she says.

Politicians and political groups are responding to gatherings like the one Friday afternoon at the Capitol.

President Trump expressed support for demonstrations last week, tweeting – in all caps-- “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” and “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.”

But, as recently as April 8, a Quinnipiac Poll found that almost 70% of Republicans nationwide favored shelter-in-place orders.

The Democratic Super-PAC Priorities USA released a statement calling the protest organizers members of a fringe group.

Some are also from outside the states where the events are being held.

“Donald Trump may like to pretend he’s speaking for a silent majority with his cries of 'liberate' particular states, but in reality, he is acting against the wishes of the American people and putting them in danger,” Priorities USA says.

The protestors in Wisconsin requested a permit to demonstrate that Capitol Police denied under the safer-at-home restriction on large gatherings. But even without a permit, rally organizers said the event would go on.

Evers said Thursday he has faith the protesters can prevent the spread of the coronavirus at the event itself.

"We’re making the assumption that these are all good Wisconsinites that are practicing their right under the first amendment to express their views. And we also believe they will make sure that they’re physically distant to each other," Evers says.

Meanwhile, the governor announced this week that he’s working to ramp up the state’s testing capabilities. Testing is seen as crucial to relaxing stay-at-home measures – as a way to identify people who carry the virus and avoid a new round of infections.

Evers also introduced a plan to reopen commerce in the state, but only when certain benchmarks are reached that show a reduction in the spread of the coronavirus.

During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.


Maayan Silver is a WUWM news reporter.
Lauren Sigfusson
Lauren became WUWM's digital producer in July 2018.
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