In an instantly iconic image of the coronavirus pandemic, a man in scrubs blocked the path of a pickup truck taking part in an open-the-economy rally in Denver. The man, who later identified himself as a health care worker, stood stoic while a woman on the passenger side of the truck, wearing a USA T-shirt, waved a handmade sign that read “LAND OF THE FREE.”
The message was misdirected. The freedom the nation most needs now is from the spread of COVID-19 and a collapsing economy. That will only happen if government-mandated mitigation efforts are successful in keeping the coronavirus from overwhelming the health care system.
The Denver protesters, just like those who gathered in front of the governor’s residence in St. Paul last Friday, seemed to interpret freedom as the right to recklessly endanger others and jeopardize the progress the nation has made through social distancing. Americans should be allowed to come together and exercise their free speech rights, but they deserve rebuke when their actions threaten the health of others.
The protests have been relatively small — about 800 people in St. Paul — and are only supported by 22% of Americans, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll. What’s more, an overwhelming 81% told Politico/Morning Consult pollsters that the country “should continue to social distance for as long as is needed to curb the spread of coronavirus, even if it means continued damage to the economy.”
Nonetheless, the demonstrations were given a capricious boost last week by President Donald Trump, who ignored his administration’s own health experts by shamelessly tweeting “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” Similar missives were directed at Virginia and Michigan.
All three states have Democratic governors. The president’s provocation didn’t include several states where Republican governors have imposed similarly restrictive policies that are meant to save lives — and livelihoods — by creating the conditions in which businesses and consumers feel safe enough to restart the economy. That’s a goal that should be shared by all regardless of political leanings.
Yet politics is exactly what U.S. Senate candidate Jason Lewis was playing when he joined the St. Paul protest against Gov. Tim Walz, who has led the effort that’s resulted in Minnesota having one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 cases per capita in the country. Lewis, who served one term in the House as a Republican representing the Second District, seems to be channeling his talk radio roots in this campaign.
It’s worth noting that the protests are far from spontaneous. Minnesota Gun Rights, which describes itself as the state’s only “No Compromise” gun rights organization, is behind some of the nation’s largest demonstrations, according to the Washington Post.
As for Walz, he played it smart, and instead of sparring with the White House, stuck to the “One Minnesota” theme that got him elected. After a conversation with Walz, Trump tweeted: “Received a very nice call from @GovTimWalz of Minnesota. We are working closely on getting him all he needs, and fast. Good things happening!” Meanwhile, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said on CNN: “I don’t think it’s helpful to encourage demonstrations and encourage people to go against the president’s own policy.”
Well said. The protests will likely “backfire,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said on Monday. “Unless we get the virus under control, the real recovery, economically, is not going to happen,” he added.
The pandemic response should not be a partisan issue. The virus is apolitical, and red and blue states alike are desperate to restart their economies. But scientific data — not demonstrations that put more Americans at risk — should drive the decisions.
Health care workers like those who took a stand in Denver are among those front-line workers who most view as heroes. The least Americans can do is to honor them by letting reason guide us through this crisis.