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Putting The Protests Against Coronavirus Lockdowns In Context


Now these protests come as states and cities across the country grapple with when and how to start reopening their economies. To help put it all in context, let's bring in NPR's Joel Rose. He's been following the protests.

Hey there, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Just give me some more detail about what you're seeing and where you are seeing it.

ROSE: Well, over the last week or so, we've seen these protests in more than a dozen states. Some have been pretty small - 10 or 20 people. Others are much bigger. Today, for example, hundreds of people rallied in Harrisburg, Pa., as we heard. Many of them were waving American flags, clearly very angry and frustrated. They described these mandatory stay-at-home rules as tyranny. And at least today, they clearly were not obeying social distancing rules. They were packed closely together on the steps outside the Capitol. Only a few of them were wearing masks or bandannas.

KELLY: And when you say we're seeing this in more than a dozen state capitals, is this still those scattered pockets? Or are we on the verge of a nationwide movement at this point?

ROSE: Well, I will say this is happening in every part of the country - in states with Republican governors, in states with Democratic governors. But I do not want to overstate how widespread the sentiment is. In fact, if you look at the polling, this is a vocal minority. The majority of Americans, nearly two-thirds, have told pollsters that they support social distancing efforts to fight the coronavirus.

KELLY: So let's dig in on what exactly is behind this. And why now at this stage after weeks of stay-at-home and social-distancing guidance?

ROSE: Well, for one thing, President Trump - he has encouraged the protests at his press conferences and through his Twitter account, making it sound like some of these states need to be liberated from their overbearing governors. What's also driving these protests are local grassroots activists. Some of them are well-known antigovernment or gun rights activists who have latched on to this issue. But there are national conservative groups that have played a role as well. They bring media savvy and experience in organizing protests like this. I talked to Adam Brandon, the president of FreedomWorks, which is a conservative, pro-business group that is advising and supporting some of the local organizers, much like it did for the Tea Party a decade ago.

ADAM BRANDON: This is a disease we have to begin to learn to live with. The most at-risk populations we need to take care of. But we should start looking at different ways to get healthy people who are at low risk back to work.

ROSE: Brandon says these protests are helping to move that conversation along. But critics would say that all the attention on these protests is exaggerating how much support they actually have and making this seem like more of a groundswell than perhaps it really is.

KELLY: Well, which prompts me to ask about the counterprotests, which we are hearing less about. What do we need to know about them and how widespread they are?

ROSE: Well, we've seen health care workers showing up at these protests. As we heard, a small group of health care workers came to the protest today in Pennsylvania. And there was one clash between protesters and a health care worker in Denver yesterday that went viral. And the imagery is really striking. There's a video that shows one nurse in light blue scrubs and an N95 mask, standing silently in the crosswalk in front of a line of cars that are filled with protesters. And one of those protesters can be heard yelling at the nurse, saying, it's a free country, and, go to China if you want communism. But these nurses are showing up to make the case that these social distancing measures are saving lives. Forty thousand people have died from the coronavirus already in the U.S. Public health experts are worried that the numbers could spike again if these rules are relaxed too soon.

KELLY: Well, speaking of which, in just a few moments, Joel, where do the stay-at-home orders stand?

ROSE: Well, some states are definitely taking steps in that direction. Today Georgia's governor rolled out an aggressive plan to reopen parts of the state's economy as early as this Friday. The governor of Tennessee said most businesses outside of the state's big cities can reopen next month, and Pennsylvania said today that construction workers can go back to work on May 8. But many governors are moving more cautiously. They say they want to be guided by science and date in order to get this right.

KELLY: Thank you, Joel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.