Politics

What the People Organizing “Reopen the Businesses” Protests Are Thinking

A movement started in part by small-business owners hoping to save their shops has spiraled into something much different.

A protester holds a bullhorn and a sign that says, "Reopen Louisiana."
Protesters in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Friday. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

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On Wednesday, cars clogged up the streets around the capitol in Lansing, Michigan, drawing up to an estimated 4,000 people to demand a “reopening” of the economy and a return to normal commercial activity. On Tuesday in Raleigh, North Carolina, one person was arrested from a crowd of more than 100 protesting people for violating public health orders. That same day, protesters gathered in Oklahoma City and in Frankfort, Kentucky, the latter group shouting loud enough to disrupt Gov. Andy Beshear’s press conference. A large number rallied in Ohio on Monday. Thursday saw protests in Texas and New York. And hundreds showed up for a protest in St. Paul, Minnesota.

There are plans for more marches, too. Some are in the works in Idaho, Indiana, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington state, and Oregon. The planning for these events is happening largely on social media and on Facebook in particular, where like-minded people vent their frustrations in groups with names such as “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine” and “End the Lockdown PA.” In some states, there are three or more such groups dedicated to organizing against the quarantine measures. Some protesters are donning Guy Fawkes masks and waving “don’t tread on me” banners. Many are decked out in MAGA merchandise, while a smaller number carried Confederate flags.

Some of the protests have drawn attention for the reckless behavior displayed by some protesters. The protester who was arrested in Raleigh was charged because she, like everyone around her, had violated public health orders by flouting social distancing measures. In Lansing, while some protesters were content to blare their horns in gridlocked traffic, others got out on foot and gathered in tight crowds. “We know this rally endangered people,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday. She added that these kinds of protests “will put more people at risk and could prolong how long we need to be in this posture.”

If you go on some of the Facebook groups organizing these protests, you will find that many of them are breeding grounds for misinformation and right-wing spin. Posts with misleading statistics (comparing the virus to the flu and other diseases, comparing the current number of cases with worst-case scenario estimates) are shared along with genuine conspiracy theories often implying that certain institutions have lied about the virus to gain power. Some posters share praise for the movement from right-wing figures such as Tomi Lahren and Alex Jones. Plenty of aggressive memes target the idiocy of experts, liberals, and, most often, the state’s governor.

This isn’t how some of the organizers of these events intended for it to turn out. Kirk Durbin, the founder of Reopen Pennsylvania, said that he hoped that his group, which focuses on letter writing and other forms of civic engagement other than protest, would remain more civil and nonpartisan. Durbin, who owns a cat café in Hollidaysburg, said that he hoped to stay focused on two issues: the protection of small businesses and the resistance to “massive overreach of government.” But in other related groups working on the same issues, he has seen activity he thought was too political or even offensive. “A lot of the conversations devolve into Trump memes,” he said. He observed that many commentators had targeted Pennsylvania’s secretary of health, a transgender woman, with hateful comments.

The supporters of the protest movement appear to generally fall into two categories: those interested in preserving local businesses and those who complain of an infringement on their personal liberties. Groups geared toward the latter more often veer stridently political, while some of the other groups are trying to take a more collaborative and conciliatory tack. Ron Armstrong, an administrator in the Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine group on Facebook (not the one behind the Lansing rally), said his group had also decided to be careful about its approach after it ballooned, in less than a week, to some 350,000 people. His group, along with Durbin’s, has focused its efforts on reaching out to and working with local politicians to “present the governor with a plan for how we might be able to open up some of our rural communities slowly and safely.”

An emphasis on rural communities is a common one among these protesters. According to a Gallup poll, those living in more rural areas, and Republican men more specifically, are the most likely to indicate they would want to return to regular life immediately. In comments and public posts, organizers and their supporters frequently argue that their communities’ conditions differ from those of cities such as Detroit, Atlanta, Chicago, and, most significantly, New York.

For Armstrong and Durbin, the pain of being a small-business owner comes across clearly as a driving force of their organizing. The $349 billion government program meant to supply small businesses with relief during the pandemic ran out of money on Thursday, and many small-business owners have struggled to secure loans to keep them afloat. For many small-business owners, the perishable nature of their products makes this an all-or-nothing deal—some can’t just wait for things to reopen. Armstrong, whose business manufactures displays for trade shows, noted the difficulty faced by suppliers of garden plants, who would lose significant income once their plants die. Durbin, whose group is asking for the state to reopen on May 1, emphasized that it was the anxiety of not knowing when life would return to normal that rallied many of his group’s members. “They’re not saying anything,” he said of his state’s leaders. “There’s no plan.”

Ashley Smith co-founded Reopen NC, the group in North Carolina behind the Tuesday protest. She cited financial ruin for small businesses, and possible deaths from poverty and suicide. “Why do those lives matter any less?” she asked. But she also insisted that the governor had abused the public’s constitutional rights. She argued that the governor should be listening to people who she believed could more accurately represent the full spread of the residents’ interests. “We’re not guaranteed in a constitution a pathogen-free or virus-free existence,” she said. “To live is to take risks. Everyone has to make a decision about how to live.”

She, like some group organizers, also argued that there was no scientific basis for the governor’s decisions. “Medical personnel aren’t elected officials,” she said, adding that “our movement is trying to demand that our elected officials are making decisions based on actual numbers and not models and projections.”

Critics concerned about these protests have argued that numbers are only lower than previously projected because extreme measures were taken in the first place. They worry that a rural county with few cases could quickly become a hot spot with the right combination of bad luck and irresponsible behavior. Experts have also long warned that without careful and deliberate action, suburban and rural communities might lag behind urban centers and experience their own waves of infection, often in areas with scant medical resources. Many of the most rapidly developing outbreaks in recent days have been in the South and Midwest.

Even with these brewing protest movements, most Americans appear to prefer caution. A Gallup poll found that some 80 percent of Americans wanted to wait to see what happens with the virus before resuming normal life. The poll also found that employment and household income had little to do with the responses, even as more than 22 million Americans have lost their jobs since the pandemic started.

But under pressure from the president, many governors have moved toward opening businesses in the start of May. Michigan’s Gov. Whitmer said she would ease restrictions on May 1, and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers announced some new exceptions to the state’s mandate on Thursday. Similar announcements were made in Florida, Idaho, and other states. On Friday, Trump made it clear that he saw these protesters as his allies against Democratic governors. “LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” he said in a string of tweets directed at the states. “LIBERATE MINNESOTA. LIBERATE MICHIGAN.”

For more on the impact of COVID-19, listen to Friday’s What Next: TBD.