DETROIT — When the enemy came, no one was ready.
Bodies piled up and fear took over as a deadly virus invaded.
But as the pathogen ruthlessly killed, human resistance grew – not to the virus, but to the government’s orders to lock down the state to stop the novel coronavirus from spreading.
Two months into the pandemic and with almost 52,000 infected and nearly 5,000 dead in Michigan, the state is in the midst of a rebellion as a growing number of people are defying and protesting the governor’s stay-at-home order, either out of anger, frustration, devastation – or sheer boredom.
Moms have started taking their kids on play dates.
A barber and hairdresser opened shop when they weren’t supposed to. A metro Detroit car wash continued to operate after receiving four tickets. An Oakland County restaurant opened on Mother’s Day. And on Wednesday, hairstylists plan to break the 6-foot rule by giving free haircuts on the state Capitol lawn.
Then there’s the mask issue: people refusing to cover their faces in stores, ignoring the governor’s order to wear masks in public places and drawing judgmental stares in grocery stores. One employee in Flint was even killed for turning away a shopper for not having a mask.
And, in perhaps the most extreme form of protest that made international headlines, masked gunmen toting assault rifles made their way inside the state Capitol to rail against state orders – images that played out on television and computer screens nationwide, making Michigan the new face of defiance in America.
Many Michiganders have argued that the armed protesters are a small minority, that the folks on the Capitol steps with swastika posters and Confederate flags are a fringe group who don’t represent the views of the majority, and have given the opposition movement a bad name.
No matter their differences, however, the gunmen and their more moderate counterparts share a common message: Stop telling us how to live our lives, and open up the economy.
“The restrictions are too much. People want to work. They want their lives back – and it’s way more than the people who you see on the steps of the Capitol,” said Ashley Radcliffe, a stay-at-home mom from Grosse Pointe Woods who has restarted neighborhood play dates for her 5-year-old son. “In the first couple weeks (of the lockdown) I was like, ‘We’re all staying in.’ And we all did. Then that kind of wore off.”
Radcliffe, who is pregnant and has two young children, is back to having family over again, and showing physical affection.
“It’s not a rebellious thing to hug your mother,” she said. “I have to hug my mom. My kids have to hug Grandma.”
Radcliffe is among many across the state who argue that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order has reached a breaking point, and that it’s time to let people get back to their normal lives and back to work. The Republican Legislature is suing the Democratic governor, alleging she overstepped her authority in issuing so many orders. And multiple police agencies have balked at her orders, saying they won’t enforce some of the measures – though Whitmer has started relaxing restrictions, like putting lawn care and landscapers back to work and permitting boating and golfing.
However, Whitmer isn’t backing down, even in the face of armed protests and death threats.
Her lockdown order is about saving lives, she says, stressing that her decisions about reopening the economy and loosening restrictions will be guided by science and medical experts – not protesters.
“Until we have a vaccine, until we can do more to keep safe, social distancing is still the best tool that we have and we’re all safer at home,” Whitmer said last week, adding: “We are not out of the woods yet.”
Moreover, she argues, the quarantine and social distancing measures are working: There could have been nearly 3,500 more coronavirus deaths in Michigan if not for her order, she said, citing University of Michigan statistics and crediting the public for doing its part.
“I know it’s hard,” she said. “But we can’t just flip a switch.”
Since declaring a state of emergency in March, Whitmer has enjoyed healthy approval ratings: 72 percent of Michigan residents say they approve of how she’s handling the COVID-19 outbreak, according to a Washington Post-Ipsos survey from April 27-May 4. An earlier poll from the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce showed 57 percent of respondents support the governor.
To be sure, not all of Whitmer’s critics are rebelling. They argue the public’s health and the economy can be protected at the same time, that it doesn’t have to be one or the other – and they support social distancing and wearing masks.
But with the stay-at-home order set to expire on May 28, Whitmer, medical experts and hospital workers are nervous, worried about what’s to come.
Will social distancing end? Will people stop wearing masks? Will people cooperate with contact tracers who need to track where the sick have been and who they’ve seen? Will tensions rise?
Perhaps most worrisome: Will defiant Michiganders trigger a second, deadlier wave?
“The devastation from a second wave could dwarf the hardship that we have already encountered,” Whitmer has warned. “We made these sacrifices, let’s not make them in vain.”
New projections from Columbia University bolster Whitmer’s concerns, with researchers warning that loosening restrictions too soon may backfire on states and could lead to an additional 10,000 new infections a day by June. They found that “even a small increase in the contact rate among individuals” will lead to a rebound in transmission and an increase in infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
“These findings indicate that most states are not well-positioned to reopen their economies and simultaneously control the spread of COVID-19 infections,” the Columbia researchers concluded.
Close our beaches? ‘Hell no’
For many across Michigan, lockdown anger is about the economy.
But in Grand Haven two weekends ago, it was about a parking lot, a beach and the right to people-watch.
Protesters gathered for a “Beach Bash” demonstration at Grand Haven State Park on May 9, hoping to encourage the reopening of the beach parking lot, which was shut down on May 3 because of crowd concerns. That weekend, large crowds ignored social distancing guidelines and packed into the lot, so city officials shut it down.
“For the first time ever, Grand Haven officials are asking visitors to stay away,” city officials wrote in a May 2 Facebook post. “We look forward to seeing crowds again after the COVID 19 threat passes.”
The plan is to reopen for Memorial Day weekend, though critics say the closure unfairly penalizes elderly people as the parking lot was their people-watching hangout.
“It’s obscene,” ‘Beach Bash’ organizer Brandon Hall said of the parking lot closure. “We’re here to tell Gretchen Whitmer or anyone who thinks they can tell us that we can’t use our park or beaches, ‘Hell No.’”
Hall, 30, who grew up in Grand Haven and now lives in Petoskey, has been organizing and attending lockdown protests across the state, including demonstrations outside Whitmer’s gubernatorial mansion in Lansing. He called the governor’s executive orders “tyrannical” and said the economic impacts of it will far outweigh any damage caused by the coronavirus, and that no one should be forced to stay in their homes.
“This is about fighting back,” Hall said. “No one is going to take our summer from us. If you want to stay home on house arrest, stay there. But if people are going to go out, they’re going to go out.”
He added: “If you’re vulnerable, self-quarantine. Why should everyone else sit on house arrest? That’s not fair.”
‘My body, my choice’
At a Lansing protest drenched by rain, the Snipes family stood under umbrellas. It was their first rally, and they had come because their daughter was upset about the governor’s executive order, which canceled a class trip to Cedar Point and college visits.
“She’s not God,” 16-year-old Madeline Snipes said of Whitmer.
The Plymouth teenager blended in with the crowd: She wore no mask. Neither did her family.
The Snipeses said they are not concerned about social distancing and believe that masks create a false sense of security. They also believe that the virus is too small to be trapped by a facial covering. For them, practicing good hygiene is enough to keep people safe.
They are not alone as masks – or the right not to wear one – have become part of the anti-lockdown movement.
Lana V. Ivanitskaya, a psychology professor at Central Michigan University, said that when too much change comes very fast – as it has with the pandemic – it’s difficult for people to cope with it. That may be why they forego wearing masks, she noted.
“Masks are probably the loudest symbol of ‘it’s not business as usual.’ If you wear a mask, it is scary,” Ivanitskaya said. “People cannot read your emotions. It is scary to look at other people in masks – we don’t know when they are smiling. We don’t know their intentions, so we lose some important social clues.”
Lockdown critics say it’s a freedom issue: If they don’t think a mask is necessary, or find it uncomfortable, they shouldn’t be forced to wear one.
“I’m not afraid for my own health. And I’m not afraid of spreading something as a healthy individual,” said Radcliffe, the Grosse Pointe Woods mother, who is not using masks. “I want to have a choice. If you’re afraid, wear it. But not everyone should be required to.”
Hall, the Holland Beach Bash organizer, agrees. He doesn’t wear masks in public, either.
“It’s my body, my choice,” said Hall, who isn’t beholden to that philosophy entirely, noting he’s “adamantly pro-life.”
Health experts have stressed that even people who think they are healthy could be carrying the virus, hence the need for wearing a mask. It’s about protecting others, they say, not just yourself.
Lockdown critic Angela Lowry of Waterford gets that.
“I’m basically just for common sense,” said Lowry, 24, who attended a Lansing protest wearing a cloth mask and carrying a sign that read “Liberty or Death.”
Lowry, an insurance specialist, has remained employed during the lockdown, but is upset that she can’t visit relatives.
“I feel strongly about the Constitution,” Lowry said. “It doesn’t matter what is going on – we always have our liberties.”
John Moehlman of St. Clair is afraid of losing those liberties. The insulation contractor said he lost work as a result of the stay-at-home order, so he went to Lansing to protest.
He didn’t wear a mask, either.
“This is flat-out tyranny,” Moehlman said. “They’re robbing our freedom right from under our eyes.”
Michigan United for Liberty, a group opposed to Whitmer’s sweeping stay-at-home order, has organized multiple Lansing protests and stresses that it discourages violence, and has not encouraged anyone to bring guns.
“We don’t want to be associated with that,” said the group’s cofounder Erica Pettinaro. “We don’t agree with any violence at all.”
People are dying, stop complaining
For many Michiganders who are following the stay-at-home order, the lockdown protesters are exasperating – the folks who won’t wear masks are especially infuriating.
“I think you are either selfish or you’re not,” said Michael McLachlan, a 46-year-old banker from Plymouth who didn’t start wearing a mask until he saw grocery workers wearing them. He believes people are using face coverings as a form of protest.
“It has become somewhat of a political thing. It is their statement that the government kind of overreached and their way of protesting is not to wear a mask,” McLachlan said. “I’m mystified that it has become a political thing versus the science.”
Grosse Pointe Woods resident Sandra Bucciero is tired of all the complaining about the shutdown.
“There are many of us who are making big sacrifices to stay home and we are doing it without complaint. My daughter has autism, and we have had to discontinue her therapy at a critical time for her development because of this virus,” said Bucciero, stressing it’s “the virus” that disrupted her child’s treatment, not the order.
Bucciero said she supports Whitmer’s actions.
“I’m sorry that some folks need a haircut. Everyone in my house needs a haircut, too, but that pales in comparison to what so many have lost during this pandemic,” Bucciero said. “Thousands of people have lost their lives in Michigan.”