Reopen Wisconsin rally brings hundreds who reject social distancing

Wisconsin reopen rally
(Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

Around 1,500 people gathered — against the advice of public health officials — around the Wisconsin State Capitol Friday to protest Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer-at-Home order. 

The order remains in effect  until May 26 to slow the spread of COVID-19, which as of Friday afternoon had infected at least 5,356 Wisconsinites and killed 262, according to the Department of Health Services. 

The protesters came from Wausau and Watertown, Baraboo and Beloit, many of them holding signs, some wearing masks and a few bearing semi-automatic rifles. 

One of them, who would only give the name “Joe D. Taxpayer,” said he trusted the American people to follow public health guidelines against congregating in large groups and avoiding close contact with others — even though he was surrounded by thousands of people doing the opposite as he spoke.

One of the rally’s many speakers said she was counted as a COVID-19 patient even though she tested negative three times. Extrapolating from there, she said the government must be inflating numbers out of “greed and fear.” 

Another speaker, John Baker, a Republican running to unseat incumbent Rep. Bryan Steil in the 1st Congressional District, said the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t a big deal because he had witnessed several other pandemics in his lifetime — such as HIV and Zika. 

“I’m not a doctor, so I don’t have medical facts,” Baker said. “And though I might be borderline genius, I’m not a scientist … I do have the facts of life.” 

The rally’s several speeches were given by business owners, pastors, healthcare workers and (Republican) politicians — including former Secretary of State candidate Jay Schroeder and Sen. Kathy Bernier, who suggested coronavirus is a problem only for Wisconsin’s urban centers. 

“I recognize there are hotspots in Wisconsin,” Bernier said. “Most of the state, 64 counties, could be opened up for business.” 

In the few blocks surrounding the Capitol, Madison was a center for Make America Great Again hats, QAnon conspiracy theorists and frustrated protesters. People carried signs saying “Working Lives Matter” and railed against the “tyranny” of Evers and DHS Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm. 

A frequent rallying cry, including from Bernier, was that Palm hadn’t been confirmed and therefore had no right to order people to stay home — that logic ignores the fact that she hasn’t been confirmed because Republicans in the Legislature have refused to hold a confirmation vote ever since Evers nominated her 15 months ago. 

Despite the protesters honking their horns and waving their flags on the square, most people in the city, state and country still believe the actions taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have been necessary, according to recent polling. 

Only 23% of Wisconsin voters believe that Safer at Home should be lifted, according to a PPP poll released April 23. And even as many of the protesters’ signs called for a recall of Evers, 56% of voters say they trust him more than President Trump to decide when the state should be reopened.

Outside of the few blocks of the protest, the honking died down, the crowd thinned and Madison began to again look more like a city staying at home to protect itself from a pandemic.