Cabin fever versus Covid fever, COVID-19, 6/x

The public reactions to the sprinkle of open up protests has been, like virtually everything else these days, heavily partisan and polemical.

The picture at left, from Huntington Beach, is one of the scattered protests to end–or loosen–restrictions on commerce and public assembly. It differs from most of the other protests reported only in that the weather is milder.

Waving American flags, along with other sorts of flags, protesters have been touted as American heroes and derided as deluded American idiots. (Always appalling, the reliably dishonest conservative flack, Stephen Moore, compared the protesters to Rosa Parks.) It’s a drastic mistake to sign onto either of these views, but there’s plenty of frustration.

Frankfort, KY

Frankfort, Kentucky

Almost everyone wants the restrictions to end, but the overwhelming majority of  Americans, Republicans and Democrats, believe the public health experts who say that isolation/quarantine/social distance is the best way to manage strain on the health care system and minimize damage from the virus. A very recent poll reports that only 10 percent of Americans believe we “should stop social distancing to stimulate the economy, even if it means increasing the spread of coronavirus.”

But you don’t need majorities to stage protests or make movements. Reports on the demonstrations describe relatively small turnouts of 100-200 people, save for Boise, Idaho where there were about 1,000 people, some armed, and mostly without masks or social distance.

And there are LOTS of reports. Vigorous protest that seems personally risks makes for a good story, particularly when the president of the United States is calling them out. Americans are tired of being confined, blocked from jobs and gyms, barbers and beaches, most shopping, and social life generally. And they are understandably anxious about what happens next as the economy collapses. For most of us, who accept the collective wisdom of public health officials, the lock down is awful; for those who don’t believe the scientists, it’s worse.

Image: Demonstrators Protests At Texas State Capitol Against Governor's Stay At Home Order

Austin, Texas

If you haven’t thoroughly studied public health, infectious diseases, or epidemiology (I haven’t!), the details of the restrictions won’t make intuitive sense. Responsible public servants will work hard to explain the details of their decisions, but it’s hard to think that most people are willing to listen right now.

Really, you want elected officials taking advice from people who know how epidemics work rather than those speaking only from personal frustration.

And there are paradoxes: On one hand, I should have the right to calibrate the risks I take with my life, suffering the consequences, including ridicule if things go wrong. (Like the motorcyclist who died in an accident while demonstrating against mandatory helmet laws.) On the other hand, there is no Constitutional right to infect. Public health officials are rightly more concerned about vectors than the risks individuals might choose.

Several hundred people attend a "Stand for Freedom" rally at the Capitol, protesting — and in violation of — Idaho Gov. Brad Little's stand-home order during the coronavirus pandemic in Boise, Idaho, Friday, April 17, 2020.

Boise, Idaho

The notion that we restrict ourselves or wear masks to protect others hasn’t been explained well enough or frequently enough, and it chafes at some versions of conservative belief anyway. Some conservative groups and politicians–who should know better–are working hard to ignore the social implications of individual choices.

People are turning up to protest because they’re angry, distrustful, and eager to change the world…back. But recognizing that their concerns are genuinely felt doesn’t mean these demonstrations are spontaneous or independent.

Alex Jones and Infowars helped organize the demonstration in Austin, Texas; a foundation funded by the DeVos family publicized the drive-in at Lansing. Tea Party Patriots, one of the organizations organizing the, uh, Tea Party, organized the demonstration in Virginia, along with gun rights groups, and Trump campaign organizations were everywhere.  The result of this constellation of sponsors is that the profile of the demonstrations skewed partisan, with Trump placards and hats, along with symbols from still-fringe elements of the right.

Meanwhile, Trump tweeted calls to “liberate” Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota (states with restrictions and Democratic governors), even as none of those states came close to meeting the guidelines for lifting restrictions the Trump administration had announced a day earlier. The president made the difficult disputes about appropriate public safety measures much simpler, much more partisan, and far more distant from informed discussion.

At very least, the demonstrations will turn up the political heat on governors who are enforcing restrictions on social and economic life in their states, no matter how well-advised they are. But it’s likely to have a greater impact on Republican governors, like Ron DeSantis (Florida) or Gregg Abbott (Texas), who haven’t been very strict to begin with, than Democrats who don’t depend on those Republican voters.

The photos and videos online show few demonstrators wearing masks or observing public health advisories about social distance. Maybe no one will get infected, nor infect others after returning home from the demonstration or stopping for groceries on the way. Certainly, we have to hope so. Infections, if there are any, won’t show up for a week or two. If that happens, we have to remember the protests and the president’s enthusiastic support.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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