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Protests against stay-at-home orders are spreading despite most Americans’ fear of reopening

Most Americans aren’t ready to reopen the country. But across the US, a vocal movement is demanding social distancing end immediately.

Hundreds of people, many carrying Texas flags and homemade signs, raises their arms as they chant. Few are wearing masks or gloves.
A crowd in Austin, Texas, protesting social distancing requirements on April 18.
Mark Felix/AFP/Getty Images

Conservatives’ frustration over state stay-at-home orders continued to boil over into the streets with protests in Texas, Indiana, New Hampshire, Nevada, Maryland, Utah, and Wisconsin taking place on Saturday — reflecting simmering tensions about state governments’ responses to the coronavirus, but not necessarily widespread views, research indicates.

The protests followed other similar events last week in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Michigan, Minnesota, Idaho, Kentucky, and California. At each of those events — and at the protests Saturday — demonstrators walked around in close contact with one another, carrying signs decrying their governors, as they questioned the threat the coronavirus poses while demanding to be allowed to go back to work.

“Keep America Free, wake up sheep,” read one Utah protester’s sign Saturday, while a New Hampshire woman’s poster read “Free people make their own risk assessments.” At a gathering in Austin, Texas, protesters cheered on Alex Jones, the founder of right-wing conspiracy theory website Infowars, as he drove by shouting, “Everybody knows we’ve been attacked by biological weapons” on a megaphone.

Conspiracy theories aside, the majority of the protesters were people chafing under weeks-long closures of workplaces. Stay-at-home orders have largely shut down businesses deemed nonessential, resulting in economic distress for millions of Americans — and in mass layoffs around the country.

According to the latest Labor Department report, more than 22 million Americans — around 14 percent of the US workforce — have filed jobless claims since mid-March, when most restrictions began going into place for for states across the country. While Congress has approved additional unemployment benefits with its CARES Act, many newly unemployed Americans have struggled to access those benefits: There are widespread reports of delayed checks and people struggling to get through to unemployment offices with the surge of claims.

President Donald Trump has promised a swift economic recovery, and announced his administration’s plan to reopen US businesses on Thursday — though the decision will ultimately be left up to states. Multiple states began easing some restrictions on Friday — such as reopening beaches, parks, and golf courses, and earlier this week, multiple governors on the East and West Coasts and in the Midwest announced regional pacts to come up with a plan to reengage economies. But despite the protests in recent days, and federal pressure to begin loosening social distancing guidelines, it would appear most Americans are not yet ready to return to normal life.

The majority of Americans are worried social distancing restrictions will be lifted too early

Demonstrators may have made a lot of noise this weekend, but polling indicates they’re in the minority.

Between April 7 and 12, the Pew Research Center asked nearly 5,000 people whether they were more concerned restrictions on public activities would be lifted too quickly or not quickly enough. The answer was overwhelming: 66 percent said they feared social distancing would be cut short too soon.

More than 80 percent of Democrats were worried about restrictions ending quickly, but a slight majority of Republicans — 51 percent — also shared that view.

And a Gallup poll taken between April 10 and 12 of around 2,500 people revealed that more Americans are worried about getting Covid-19 than are worried about experiencing severe financial hardship due to the restrictions.

While both effects of the virus — tens of thousands of deaths, and historic economic setbacks — are devastating, experts say things will only get worse if states ease restrictions too quickly and cause a second surge of cases before health care systems are prepared to handle it.

Public health experts argue the best way to ensure there is no resurgence in cases upon relaxing restrictions is to conduct widespread, robust testing. Unfortunately, scientists say the US is still a long way off from being able to do this.

According to the Covid Tracking Project, the US has averaged fewer than 150,000 tests per day over the last week. Researchers at Harvard University estimate that to reopen the US by the middle of May, daily tests would need to be closer to 500,000 to 700,000. And other experts argue millions of tests would need to be conducted each day.

“The whole point of this social distancing is to buy us time to build up capacity to do the types of public health interventions we know work,” Natalie Dean, a biostatistics professor at the University of Florida, told Vox’s German Lopez. “If we’re not using this time to scale up testing to the level that we need it to be … we don’t have an exit strategy. And then when we lift things, we’re no better equipped than we were before.”