MADISON, Wis. – Thousands of people cheering "USA" and "open up" gathered on the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol on Friday to protest Gov. Tony Evers' restrictions on their daily lives, rallying in close quarters on a day the state saw its highest daily increase in positive cases of coronavirus.
The crowd stood shoulder to shoulder – physically and in solidarity – in defiance of the Democratic governor's order to keep businesses and schools closed, and people apart, in an effort to limit the spread of the highly contagious virus for which there is no vaccine.
Circulating among the crowd were petitions to recall Evers and signs that said "All Workers Are Essential" and "Death ... is preferable to communism."
Dozens of American flags accompanied the protesters and some openly carried assault-style rifles.
"I think this will make Evers respond," Cindy Warner of Milwaukee said. "People of different backgrounds, races and cultures all want to get back to work. The flu can kill you but so can not eating."
Public health experts say no one should be gathering in groups this large as the highly contagious coronavirus continues to spread through Wisconsin – but it's those limits that are largely driving them to do so.
Scores of businesses have closed or drastically reduced their staffs, leading to hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims. Churches have closed their doors. And about 900,000 children aren't in school.
The virus has infected 5,356 people in Wisconsin and killed 262. But it's largely affecting communities with larger populations – driving resentment among people who live in areas with many fewer cases of the virus and are being subject to the same economic restrictions.
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The same day as the protest, Wisconsin saw its highest daily increase in confirmed positive cases of the virus – 304. Thursday night, nurses lined the state Capitol steps with 1,300 electronic candles in tribute to those currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in Wisconsin. The candles were meant to be a silent counter-protest.
Friday's protest also has political motivations – conservative activist Bob Dohnal in a newsletter offered free transportation to anyone who wanted to attend the protest.
At a parking lot in Waukesha County, several hundred participants in a planned business owners rally gathered Friday before driving as a group to the Capitol Square. Signs drawn on car windows said "Let Freedom Ring" and "Shut Down Fear, Open Up Wisconsin."
Among them was Tom Rakowski, a part-time bartender from Wind Lake who dressed up as President Donald Trump.
"This is going to bring awareness to the state," Rakowski said. "Leave it up to the business owners."
Near the Capitol, former state Rep. Don Pridemore and his wife, Tina, were collecting signatures in support of forming an exploratory committee to recall Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.
Asked if he wanted to recall Evers, Pridemore, who is running for state Senate and once ran against Evers for state schools superintendent, said, "That would be the ultimate goal, but we're taking this in steps."
Kerry Poole of Milwaukee, an executive assistant at an appraisal firm who is able to work remotely, attended with her mother, Debbie Kauer.
"I don't think this is a partisan issue," Poole said. "I think this affects people the same. I'm just here to let our governor and legislators know that the people around Wisconsin want to start opening up the state."
Mark Batten – a fabricator, welder and steamfitter from Milwaukee – was carrying a sign, "We Won't Forget, Tony."
"The numbers don't justify (the closure)" Batten said "It is based on hysteria, not logic."
Protesters also stayed in their cars, lining up on East and West Washington Avenue and in front of the Capitol rally, honking their horns and waving flags.
Capitol police were on hand, some wearing plastic face shields, but did not enforce physical distancing rules on the crowd, many of whom were not wearing masks.
At least two women wearing hospital scrubs stood among the crowd with face masks holding signs that read "please go home" and "In overwhelmed hospitals, more people die."
Similar protests have popped up around the country, especially in states with Democratic governors.
Evers told reporters Thursday he believes the protesters' First Amendment rights are "sacred" and wouldn't direct the Capitol police force to enforce physical distancing rules he has ordered to prevent transmission of the virus.
Contributing: Ricardo Torres; follow Molly Beck on Twitter: @MollyBeck.