What, exactly, do the COVID-19 protesters want?

An open letter to the unmasked men and women marching on state capitols.

Published May 7, 2020 6:30AM (EDT)

Protestors try to enter the Michigan House of Representative chamber and are being kept out by the Michigan State Police (EFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)
Protestors try to enter the Michigan House of Representative chamber and are being kept out by the Michigan State Police (EFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

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Dear State House Protesters,

Usually, I'm all in favor of protest. Far be it from me to suggest that you are fodder for some strictly rightist political campaigning, but perhaps you can set down your semi-automatic weapons for a moment. Let's talk about what exactly you want in these continuing attempts to flaunt public health rules and rush us into re-opening all public activities, forgoing protective masks and forgetting physical distance measures.

It was a beautiful weekend here in New York City, just the kind of weather that you seem to see as demanding that people flock to beaches, golf courses or parks to re-start ball games Right Now. Or visit the beauty salon – today.

We sat alone on our sunny Harlem apartment building roof, perhaps occasionally changing the horizon to something greener or beachier than the cityscape before us. The only thing to interrupt our warm musings was the background noise of another dozen ambulances regularly racing toward Harlem Hospital.

That piercing sound of the ambulance is evidence of a continuing problem, a necessary nod to the reality that coronavirus has not left, no matter how much you want to wish it away magically.

You see, that piercing sound of the ambulance is evidence of a continuing problem, a necessary nod to the reality that coronavirus has not left, no matter how much you want to wish it away magically. We're down from more than 800 people a day dying in the city to under 300 – but that is still a lot.

When we walked to the local market, all but one person we passed accepted the idea that a mask might help protect others – and that guy wasn't much part of the real world altogether. In the market, there was no pushing or shoving, but rather an upbeat acceptance of our circumstances. We checked on family and friends, did work and volunteered from home, read books to the grandkids by Zoom.

Would we rather be together or ensuring that all were at work. Of course. But there is this nagging contagion problem, and we're adapting.

In other words, we are living our lives – without endangering your health or anyone else's.

The message from protests

What we're hearing and seeing from your grandstanding protests at various statehouses are attempts to intimidate state legislators and governors toward, well, speeding up the re-opening efforts that are already underway.

We find that set of messages a little confusing because there seem to be several protests being lumped together in media images.

In any event, we don't get the point of the guns, swastikas and anti-Semitic memes (how did we get there?), confederate flags and mask-less yelling. Those exercises don't make the disease go away – or apparently change whether there should be statewide health guidance.

Jobs. There is a group that is genuinely worried about getting back to work, pushing back against the terrible effects of an economic shutdown. We're right with you. So are governors, by the way, which is why they already are moving to re-open stores and jobs, though they may be more interested in reducing unemployment claims than opening manufacturing lines. This is to say nothing of the problem of persuading enough consumers through the doors to keep businesses alive.

What we cannot understand about these statehouse protests is why they are not demanding that employers establish safety regulations to re-open with lessened health risks. The meat-packing example is evidence aplenty that profit motives do not necessarily protect workers. Just for nothing, there are suddenly oodles of jobs available for those willing to go outside and, rather than protest, deliver, warehouse, clean and trace medical contacts.

Recreation. Then there is a group that seems most worried about when to get back to surfing and sunning on the beach, golf and sports…the individual right to pursue happiness. They want all physical distancing rules suspended to allow them to have summer fun. These folks confuse me because their choices seem to come with little responsibility, either toward restoring the economy or toward keeping my health intact. Is it unfair that the image of that woman demanding the right to her haircut keeps coming to mind or the protester with a surfboard under his arm?

Freedom-fighters. These are the folks who are showing up to complain about rules altogether, who draw a straight line from health guidance to anti-gun legislation or envision some kind of public intimidation court where coronavirus is an acceptable outcome for individual decision-making. Now we can start adding anti-vaxxers in anticipation of getting to an actual anti-coronavirus vaccine, a step that would allow us to re-open fully as a society – except that some object to vaccines altogether.

These people seem to deny that there is such a thing as a contagious disease, but they accept the idea that they drive on the right side of the road or can collect state benefits. Some are organized by pro-Donald Trump groups and believe in disruption as an end in itself. Whatever.

What to do

Just for the sake of their own personal protection, it seems reasonable that even the most extreme of the protesters would wear face masks. For sure, I wish they'd see the logic of covering their mouth or protesting from a few feet from one another just so they would be less likely to get the disease.

What I think we all should be protesting is a federal government that does not want to deal with the hard work of lessening health dangers rather than state governors who will do in a week or two what most protesters want today.

These protests don't seem to acknowledge that jobs are going to be a problem whether or not the distancing rules are lifted. Companies are going to be wary about bringing everyone back to hiring rolls and even if they do, consumers are not necessarily going to flock to malls and stores to buy goods in the numbers that will underwrite advertising, transportation, even utility costs in the same manner as six months ago.

Protests would be better focused on demanding job training and continuing unemployment benefits – on programs that actually expand government programs rather than on demands for government to butt out.

Let me know, I'll be on the roof – where we can still hear the ambulance sirens.

By Terry H. Schwadron

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