MADISON, Wisc. (Reuters) - A rally outside Wisconsin’s capitol building in Madison on Friday drew hundreds of protesters who demanded Democratic Governor Tony Evers reopen the state even as it reported its largest single day jump of new coronavirus cases.
The reopening of shuttered businesses in states across the country has become a political hot-button issue as the shutdowns to curb the spread of the virus have hammered the U.S. economy.
Protesters in several states over the last couple weeks have demanded a rollback on orders that have closed businesses and other activities deemed to be non essential.
Many of the protesters wore hats supporting President Donald Trump, waved American flags and carried “Go Back To Work” and “Open Wis. Now” signs, as they called for the first-term governor to end the state’s state-at-home order in effect until May 26. Wisconsin is expected to be a critical state in November’s presidential election as Trump seeks a second term.
“Don’t let the Communist take over of our country ... stand strong, be united and stand tall and proud for America,” said a protester who voiced his displeasure through a bullhorn.
Wisconsin Capitol Police said about 1,500 people attended the gathering and there were no arrests and no citations issued.
About a third of the protesters wore face masks, including a group of men brandishing assault rifles.
There was also a quiet counter-protest - a woman standing under a tree wearing a face mask, a bottle of hand sanitizer on her hip, holding a sign that said, “Please Go Home.”
The protests have angered governors trying to contain coronavirus outbreaks in their states through social distancing measures largely ignored by the demonstrators.
Evers’ office was not immediately available for comment. According to local media, he denied rally organizers a permit to gather.
Nationally, the coronavirus death toll topped 50,000 on Friday, as Wisconsin officials reported 304 new cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the highly contagious virus. That was the largest one-day increase in Wisconsin since the outbreak began.
“I understand that there is a pandemic going around, but we really need to realize that some of the measures they are putting into place are asinine, are ridiculous,” said Duncan Lemp, the president the Wisconsin Second Amendment Coalition, who was armed with a long rifle.
Friday also saw Wisconsin joining Georgia, Oklahoma and a handful of other states that took their first tentative steps at reopening for business, despite the disapproval of health experts and even Trump, who has championed reopening the economy as soon as possible.
Under the state’s relaxed restrictions, Wisconsin libraries and non-essential businesses like clothing stores are now allowed to do curbside pickups, golf courses are open for play and lawn care businesses could begin operating if the work can be done by one person.
Writing and additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Editing by Bill Berkrot