City News

‘We have a right to assemble’: Protests against ‘Safer at Home’ order highlights growing conflict between public health, personal freedoms

 The protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol Friday moves against Gov. Tony Evers’ new mandate to extend Wisconsin’s “Safer at Home” order, and will violate pre-existing social distancing measures. 

 The protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol Friday moves against Gov. Tony Evers’ new mandate to extend Wisconsin’s “Safer at Home” order, and will violate pre-existing social distancing measures. 

Mentally, emotionally and financially stressed by social distancing guidelines, Madison Elmer and her sister-in-law Adrianne Elmer-Melby’s frustration turned into a campaign for collective action. 

The two, along with similar-minded individuals, created a Facebook page to plan a demonstration at the Wisconsin State Capitol this Friday in opposition to Gov. Evers’ decision to extend Wisconsin’s “Safer at Home” order until late May.

Interest for the April 24 “Freedom Rally” quickly grew as more than 3,330 Facebook users said they would attend the protest and almost 13,000 other users indicated they would consider going. 

“The Governor was not returning emails, his voicemail was constantly full and he was not addressing our concerns,” Elmer said. “We felt abandon[ed] and had to do something.”

Following a weekend demonstration in Brookfield, a new wave of protests set to take place against the state government underscores the contentious battle between carrying out public safety practices and sacrificing personal freedoms amid a global pandemic. 

The central component to the protesters’ grievances is the economic hardships resulting from the closure of non-essential businesses and a perceived violation by the government in restricting ordinary citizens from carrying out their daily routines.

The protesters do not necessarily disagree with social distancing rules, rather they want the state to re-open and for individuals to take personal responsibility in administering the guidelines on their own accord, said Tony Szak, an organizer for the Open Wisconsin Now March, which will take place alongside the Freedom Rally.

“I thought [the extension] was an overreach of power. It really pushes back on our civil liberties as working Americans,” Szak said. “We’re looking to show the state of Wisconsin and the elected officials that there are people out there willing to go back to work.”

Szak, who works for a manufacturer in the construction industry, along with his wife, a nurse with Gundersen Health Systems in the La Crosse area, are considered essential workers. However, fellow community members have been furloughed, taken pay cuts and lost their jobs.  

“Even if you are an essential business, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re getting the same number of clients or customers or patients that you are seeing before,” Elmer-Melby said. “These small family businesses just may not be able to reopen.”

Elmer-Melby’s husband, who manages a chiropractic clinic, qualifies as an essential worker. But with a mounting grocery bill and keeping five kids at home, she pointed out an overlooked consequence of social distancing — mental health. 

A survivor of sexual assault and abuse as a child, Elmer-Melby suffers from complex PTSD, anxiety and panic attacks. Being confined to her house has triggered “emotional flashbacks,” fostering a difficult living environment. 

With more time at home, Elmer also has had more time to consider what should be done from the Governor’s office. 

“Our ultimate goals with hosting this rally are to bring awareness to the other side of this heavily divided topic … and encourage our Governor and the Department of Health to start working with real people and come up with a plan that works for everyone,” Elmer said. “He needs everyone’s input on this, not just the people in [his] office.”

With the protests slated for 1 p.m. Friday, both demonstrations will commence without any permit from the City of Madison to assemble. Elmer said guest speakers — including farmers, religious leaders, medical professionals and business owners — will also offer their insights about the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Despite guidelines prohibiting social gatherings of more than 10 people to prevent the transmission of the novel coronavirus, Szak and Elmer-Melby acknowledged the dangers associated with congregating a large number of people and anticipated participants would wear protective equipment and exercise some social distancing measures at the rally. 

“Obviously, there’s a risk to any kind of gathering. There’s a risk for getting COVID-19 by simply going to your local grocery store or your local hardware store or any of those businesses that are open,” Szak said. “We understand the risks, but we also understand that we have a right to assemble and we have a right to show our leaders in government that we can be responsible, and we should be able to have the right to go back to work.”

But in a state with 4,845 confirmed cases of the virus and 246 reported deaths, including seven new cases in Milwaukee potentially linked to the April 7 primary, city and county officials voiced their disapproval in holding the demonstrations.

“Protesting Gov. Evers’ ‘Safer at Home’ order is selfish and a blatant disregard of others' safety, and disrespectful to those who are on the frontlines of the pandemic,” Dane County Board Supervisor Elena Haasl, District 5 said. “We are all in this together to flatten the curve in Wisconsin, and the only way we can do this is if we limit contact with others. Evers has made this difficult decision because it will save lives and protect the citizens of our state and I fully stand behind his decision.”

Public health officials also advocated for the ‘Safer at Home’ guidelines. A model created by Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services originally projected around 22,000 positive cases of the novel coronavirus and between 440 and 1500 deaths by April 8. With social distancing, however, the numbers remain significantly lower.

“Limiting physical contact between people is our only tool at slowing the spread of this virus,” DHS Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm said. “We will continue to work through our statewide response to develop capacity to implement effective containment strategies across the state. These are critical steps to prevent a future surge of cases.”

While Szak believes the “Safer at Home” order has worked in containing the spread of the virus, he believes COVID-19 cannot be completely eliminated and healthy individuals should be able to return to work, even with the prospect of a surge of new cases. He advocated for individuals to take personal responsibility in wearing protective gear and for individuals to monitor their health if the state were to re-open. 

“When we start going back to work, we’re going to see a spike in infections,” Szak said. “But flattening the curve means that we were getting our hospitals equipped and everyone ready for what can happen in the future.” 

As growing pessimism toward social distancing and shelter-in-place policies continues to spread across Wisconsin and the United States — with three conservative pro-gun activists creating seperate Facebook groups in support of anti-quarantine protests and Republican lawmakers asking the state Supreme Court to block Evers' extension — public health has entered the political arena as a victim of public opinion.  

“We’ve polarized this country so much that even when it’s life and death, evidence-based policymaking is only an afterthought,” said Madison Ald. Max Prestigiacomo, District 8. “These protests are simply a symptom of a more significant issue that we’ve allowed to fester: the politicizing of science.” 

Evers’ new mandate to extend “Safer at Home” will be implemented on Friday. Non-essential businesses will be allowed to open and conduct “minimum basic operations” including curb-side pick-ups and deliveries. Recognizing the difficult situation, Evers’ message stayed consistent with all other proponents of social distancing: a collective effort will be needed to effectively combat the virus. 

“Wisconsinites, I am once again calling on you to rise to the challenge. ‘Safer at Home’ is working,” Evers said. “We have reduced cases, prevented hospitalizations, and saved lives. So let’s get this done together.”

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