Emboldened by tweets from President Donald Trump, hundreds of people rallied outside Gov. Tim Walz's residence Friday to oppose his stay-home orders imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The "Liberate Minnesota" rally, estimated by St. Paul police at about 800 protesters, was cheered by Republican leaders in Minnesota who have grown increasingly critical of record job losses that have followed the social distancing directives.
In a sign of the deepening partisan rift over the COVID-19 pandemic in Congress and in state houses across the country, rallies aimed at Democratic governors have accused them of "tyranny," echoing themes of the Tea Party movement of the Obama era.
However, unlike in the Tea Party era, the sitting president is actively fomenting the protests, though few have been directed at GOP governors pursuing nearly identical policies.
Trump, picking up on the name of the Minnesota protest organizers, tweeted in all caps: "LIBERATE MINNESOTA!" on Friday and sent the same slogan out regarding Michigan and Virginia, also states with Democratic governors.
Trump's attempt to raise anger against those governors came just a day after he abdicated any responsibility on the topic of opening up states again and said governors would "call your own shots" on easing restrictions.
Protest groups have been organizing in other states, notably Michigan, where thousands of people, some armed, some wearing masks, flouted social distancing and stay-home orders Wednesday in a rally on the steps of the State Capitol.
Protests also have taken place in Virginia and Kentucky. A similar rally is planned for April 24 in Madison, Wis.
Walz said Friday afternoon that he had tried calling Trump and Vice President Mike Pence but had not received return calls.
"I just don't have time to figure out why something like that would happen," Walz said of the president's tweet. He added he was doing what the president asked all governors to do Thursday — lead the local response.
"I think we are moving in the right direction," Walz said.
The main organizers of the St. Paul rally, Michele Even of Credit River Township and Don Huizenga of Anoka, have ties to conservative activism and Minnesota Republican politics.
Even said that politics is not the point, but rather to express concerns about what they see as an overly drastic response that is devastating thousands of small businesses and other sectors of the economy. "The shutdown of our state reaches across party affiliations," Even said. "It affects every citizen of our state regardless of where you stand politically."
The St. Paul rally played out as state lawmakers gave final approval to legislation allowing restaurants to sell takeout alcohol, a demand of the powerful hospitality industry at the Capitol. Although the new liquor rules have bipartisan support, Republicans in the Minnesota House took turns railing against Walz's emergency powers and sharing stories about the hardships of constituent business owners.
"Our citizens want hope. They want to know that there is an end date," said Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria. Franson, wearing a red "Let Minnesotans Work Again" T-shirt, has vowed on Twitter to ignore Walz's stay-home order.
That order is set to last until at least May 4. Some GOP leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, have come out against any extension.
But some Minnesota business leaders have cautioned against reopening the economy too quickly, and national polls have generally shown clear support for the shelter-in-place directives across party lines.
A new Politico/Morning Consult poll found the vast majority of voters support continuing the social-distancing measures. More than eight in 10 voters — including 72% of Republicans — said Americans "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."
Only 10% said Americans "should stop social distancing to stimulate the economy, even if it means increasing the spread of coronavirus."
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, urged a cautious approach in a Fox News interview Thursday night.
Despite Minnesota's business closures, Walz administration officials say that nearly 80% of jobs are estimated to be in critical fields that are still operating. Walz has recently allowed a few more sectors, such as lawn care, to resume work.
Friday's protest came as Walz lifted restrictions on golf courses and other outdoor venues, a move that was welcomed by Republican lawmakers.
"I hope this is just a first step that paves the way for other businesses to open in a way that protects the health and safety of employees," House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said in a statement.
Daudt led an effort in the Minnesota House on Tuesday to end Walz's peacetime emergency powers and begin the process of reopening the state economy. The resolution failed on a party-line vote.
Republicans in the Minnesota Senate also have set up a web page to take suggestions from business owners on how to open their businesses safely and maintain social distance. Jason Lewis, a GOP candidate for U.S. Senate, announced an RV tour of the state to highlight the shutdown struggles of business owners.
Lewis, running against DFL incumbent Sen. Tina Smith, showed up at the rally outside the governor's residence.
Many of the protesters waved American flags; also on display were flags, signs and banners supporting Trump. Other protesters carried handmade signs bearing messages ranging from "Say no to tyranny" to "Facts not fear" and "Live Free or Die Trying."
Most in the crowd, especially near the residence's gates, did not practice social distancing as recommended by state and federal health authorities. A few protesters wore masks; most didn't.
The atmosphere was raucous but mostly tame, though there were some confrontational moments at the edges. At one point, a man walked down the Summit Avenue bike path with his middle fingers hoisted in the air. Another man followed close behind shouting, "Spit on me, boy! Spit on me!"
Don Vergin, a 67-year-old retired postal worker, drove hours Friday morning from the western Minnesota town of Benson to join the protest.
"I'm concerned about people losing their jobs and losing their homes," Vergin said. "I came here because I want to support speeding up the reopening of Minnesota."
Vergin said his son was unemployed before the virus outbreak. "He's looking for work, but this makes it so much harder." Vergin was carrying an American flag and a handmade sign that read, "All Businesses are Essential."
Minnesota Libertarian Party Chairman Chris Holbrook held two of the flags that were common in the crowd — "Don't Tread on Me" and the American flag. "I'm pleased with the turnout. I'm also disappointed it's a little more of a Trump rally than I thought," Holbrook said of the protest, adding, "It's not as bad as that one in Michigan looked like."
Despite the pushback against the business closures, rally organizers said they would encourage participants to take whatever safety measures they wanted — whether that be social distancing, remaining in their cars or wearing protective equipment.
"I will be wearing a mask," said Huizenga, a construction manager and past candidate for Minnesota Senate. "You can make people aware of the risks, you can get the information out there, everything they're doing now," he added. "But then you let the market respond collectively, and people can figure out for themselves what are the proper precautions. We just think it's not government's role to dictate such a severe response."