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Explainer: Why are people protesting against Covid-19 lockdowns in the US?

At one protest in Colorado, a woman shouted at a healthcare worker ‘You go to work, why can’t I go to work?’

Protesters against the lockdown rally outside the Texas State Capitol in Austin.
Protesters against the lockdown rally outside the Texas State Capitol in Austin.
Image: Eric Gay/AP via PA Images

THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE have attended protests in various locations across the US in recent days, calling for Covid-19 restrictions to be lifted.

Many people have criticised the demonstrations, noting the danger of holding mass gatherings at a time when we are being encouraged to practise social distancing.

However, the protests have one important fan: President Donald Trump.

The US has so far recorded more than 758,000 Covid-19 cases and over 40,000 deaths – the highest such figures globally.

So, what’s going on?

The vast majority of the US is under some form of lockdown and residents in certain states have become restless, calling for restrictions to be lifted and businesses to reopen.

Health experts have said it’s too soon to ease restrictions but the Trump administration is pushing to relax the lockdown rules by 1 May, a plan that hinges partly on more testing.

2.53459445 Members of the anti-government Boogaloo movement attend a demonstration against the lockdown at the State House in Concord, New Hampshire. Source: Michael Dwyer/AP via PA Images

Public health officials said the ability to test enough people and trace contacts of those who are infected is crucial before easing restrictions, and that infections could surge again unless people continue to take precautions.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe Trump acted too slowly in responding to the pandemic, according to a new report from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

The research also shows that about twice as many people say their greater concern is that state governments will lift restrictions on public activity too quickly (66%) rather than not quickly enough (32%).

Many governors disagree with Trump’s approach and have publicly clashed with the president. 

‘Phase one’

Vice President Mike Pence said every US state has the ability to do enough testing to allow preliminary re-opening of businesses.

However, a number of state governors said testing capacity is far behind levels needed to avoid sparking new outbreaks of the virus.

“We believe the testing that we have today… once we activate all of the labs that can do coronavirus testing, is sufficient for any state in America to move into phase one,” Pence told Fox News yesterday.

coronavirus-task-force-press-briefing US President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at yesterday's White House press briefing. Source: Stefani Reynolds/CNP via PA Images

‘Phase one’ would end stay-at-home restrictions for healthy people, and allow restaurants, cinemas, sporting venues, places of worships and gyms to reopen once physical distancing is adhered to.

“We have every confidence that we can have a sufficient amount of testing to be able to re-open America,” Pence said, vowing to double the numbers of tests.

Pence is due to hold a call with governors today to discuss testing and give them a list of lab facilities in their states.

‘Delusional’ 

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was among those to refute the administration’s claims about testing, describing them “delusional”.

Gretchen Whitmer, Democratic governor of Michigan, said the number of daily tests being carried out there could be double or even tripled “if we had the swabs and reagents” and called for more federal government help.

Hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people gathered at protests in various states last week and over the weekend. 

Demonstrations were held in locations such as New Hampshire, Texas, Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia. Many protesters were wearing pro-Trump hats or clothing and shouting pro-Trump slogans. Some people held signs stating ‘Freedom is essential’. 

In Washington state, an early virus hotspot in the US, more than 2,000 people — many of them ignoring social distancing guidelines — congregated yesterday to demand that the governor reopens businesses. 

In Colorado, healthcare workers staged a peaceful counter-protest against a demonstration. In one video, a woman shouts at a nurse ‘You go to work, why can’t I go to work?’

A few hundred demonstrators waved signs outside the State House in New Hampshire, which has had nearly 1,300 cases of the virus and more than three dozen deaths.

One of the protesters, talk show host Ian Freeman, said: “Even if the virus were 10 times as dangerous as it is, I still wouldn’t stay inside my home. I’d rather take the risk and be a free person.”

‘LIBERATE!’

Texas governor Greg Abbott has said restrictions in the state will begin easing this week, with some shops being allowed to sell merchandise and hospitals resuming non-essential surgeries.

For the first time in weeks, people were able to visit some Florida beaches over the weekend, but they were subject to restrictions on time and types of activities.

Infections are continuing to surge in areas such as the northeast of the country.

Rhode Island, between the hot spots of Massachusetts and New York, has seen a steady daily increase in infections and deaths, with nursing home residents accounting for more than 90 of the state’s 118 fatalities.

The state’s death rate of around 10 people per 100,000 is among the nation’s highest per capita, according to data compiled by the Covid Tracking Project.

Massachusetts had its highest number of deaths in a single day on Friday, with 159. Republican governor Charlie Baker, citing health experts’ advice, said states should wait until infection rates and hospital admissions decline for about two weeks before acting on reopening.

2.53460356 Protesters gather outside the Indiana governor’s mansion in Indianapolis to demand the end of lockdown restrictions. Source: Michael Conroy/AP via PA Images

However, Trump appears to be on the side of the protesters, tweeting “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” — all states with Democratic governors — from stay-at-home orders.

Trump also hit out at New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, who has sharply criticised the federal response. Cuomo has said that New York’s shutdown will last until at least 15 May.

The daily coronavirus death toll in New York has dropped again, a sign the state is “on the other side of the plateau”, Cuomo said over the weekend.

He said 507 people died on Saturday, down 43 from the previous day, showing social distancing practices are working to stem the spread of the virus.

Cuomo and mayor Bill de Blasio have maintained their warnings that people in New York City and the rest of the state need to stay vigilant to curb the spread of the virus.

“We showed that we can control the beast and when you close down, you can actually slow that infection rate, but this is only half-time,” Cuomo said at a briefing yesterday.

We still have to make sure that we keep that beast under control, we keep that infection rate down, we keep that hospitalisation rate down as we all get very eager to get on with life and move on.

He added: “We are not at a point when we are going to be reopening anything immediately.”

Nearly 14,000 New Yorkers have died since the state’s first coronavirus case was reported on 1 March.

This does not include more than 4,000 New York City deaths that were blamed on the virus on death certificates but were not confirmed by laboratory tests.

Tweet by @Donald J. Trump Source: Donald J. Trump/Twitter

During his Saturday briefing at the White House, Trump said Montana will begin lifting restrictions on Friday, with Ohio, North Dakota and Idaho advising non-essential businesses to prepare for reopening from 1 May.

Trump sounded defiant once again at his daily White House press conference yesterday.

“Some governors have gone too far” in their restrictions on business, he said. He added that protesters “love our country” and “want to get back to work”.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee said the fact the American president is encouraging people to “violate the law” is “dangerous”.

The Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, said Trump’s encouragement of protesters was “not helpful”.

Trump began yesterday’s press conference by reading out positive news stories about himself and played edited footage appearing to show Cuomo praising the federal reaction.

A CNN reporter asked Trump if “this was the time for self congratulations”. 

The president responded: “You’re CNN. You’re fake news … You don’t have the brains you were born with … It’s not about me.”

Contains reporting from © AFP 2020 and Press Association 

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Órla Ryan

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