Alex Jones, radio host and founder of far-right news site InfoWars, joined protesters gathered in Austin, Texas, to call for the reopening of the state © Alex Scott/Bloomberg

Be the first to know about every new Coronavirus story

Last month John McDaniel, a 60-year-old from Marion, Ohio, wrote a series of Facebook posts in which he described the coronavirus outbreak as a “political ploy” and decried the “madness” of the governor’s decision to close the state’s restaurants and bars.

“If you are paranoid about getting sick, just don’t go out,” he wrote, adding that others should not be prevented from “living [their] lives”.

A few weeks later, Mr McDaniel died from complications related to Covid-19, becoming one of more than 40,000 Americans to have perished from the disease. In his obituary, his family requested that “everyone continue practising social distancing to keep each other safe”.

Mr McDaniel was not alone in his belief that the official coronavirus response in the US has been too draconian. In the past week, thousands of Americans in more than a dozen states have participated in protests against “stay at home” orders that have shut down huge parts of the country’s economy and precipitated a record rise in unemployment claims.

The protests are an extreme example of the challenges western democracies have faced in implementing lockdowns, and also a potential harbinger of trouble ahead as they try to introduce mass testing and tracing to prevent a new spike of Covid-19 cases that could accompany any economic reopening. 

Some protesters cite economic hardship as their primary reason for participating, while others argue the statewide lockdowns infringe their civil liberties. According to an opinion survey from the Pew Research Centre, about a third of Americans say their biggest concern is that state governors will be too slow to lift restrictions on public activity.

Many protesters fear the measures infringe their civil liberties © Seth Herald/Reuters

They have won backing from President Donald Trump, who last week fired off a series of encouraging tweets. “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” he wrote in one post, which was accompanied by similar entreaties to anti-lockdown activists in Virginia and Minnesota.

Chris Vitale, 47, a Trump supporter who works for Fiat Chrysler outside Detroit, Michigan, said he opposed the state’s lockdown on civil liberties grounds. “There are lots of places in the world that will give you all the safety you could want, so long as you agree to their rules,” he said. America is “not supposed to be the safest place on earth but it is supposed to be the freest”.

Mr Vitale also cites his distrust of the official statistics and forecasts used by Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer to defend her state’s lockdown. “They’re telling people: we’re going to take your civil liberties away and put you out of work but, by the way, we’re not really sure about any of these numbers.”

However, opposition to Ms Whitmer’s “stay at home” order is not limited to constitutional conservatives fearful for their civil liberties. Rich Studley, president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which counts roughly 5,000 businesses among its members, is also critical. If Ms Whitmer extends the lockdown into next month, then “hundreds and hundreds of businesses will never reopen”, he said.

Ms Whitmer has said she supports the “right to dissent and demonstrate” while also criticising the president’s encouragement of protests at a time when the federal government is calling for social distancing.

Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer has defended her state’s lockdown, but opposition to her ‘stay at home’ order is not limited to constitutional conservatives © AP

Matt Ahmann, a 20-year-old business student at Indiana University who has organised a protest in Wisconsin’s state capital this Friday, said not all activists were motivated by civil liberties. “A ton of different people . . . will attend for a ton of different reasons. They laugh at us as though we are rednecks who don’t care about anyone’s health, but my main concern is the economic destabilisation that this will cause.”

Some southern states including Georgia are preparing to ease restrictions. However, other governors say that economic reopenings will have to be accompanied by a dramatic increase in testing and contact tracing, which could also prompt opposition among civil liberties activists. 

David Britt, 60, a mental health counsellor in Virginia who attended boarding school in Singapore, warned that the kind of test-and-trace measures deployed in the city-state — which are among the most draconian in the world — would be unacceptable in the US.

Editor’s note

The Financial Times is making key coronavirus coverage free to read to help everyone stay informed. Find the latest here.

“We can’t do that here, we have this thing called the constitution and we love it,” he said. “I don’t think reopening is totally dependent on a certain level of testing. To my mind we’ve already sacrificed too much.”

Mr Britt cites a quotation from Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the US, which has become a rallying cry for some anti-lockdown protesters: “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Others offer a more nuanced view. Kim Travis, 56, a design engineer who plans to attend this Friday’s protest in Wisconsin, said she would support contact tracing if it were voluntary. Robin Moore, a wine consultant from Milwaukee, said it should only be done in virus hotspots.

Bill Way, a marketing entrepreneur who organised a protest in Phoenix, Arizona at the weekend, said many of his fellow protesters would resist efforts to force them to get tested or vaccinated. “It’s absolutely the same issue — it’s about violations of civil rights,” he said. “We can’t mandate in our country that people get vaccines or get tested.”

Mr Way also believes that some Americans will resist any attempt to introduce “immunity passports”, which would grant greater freedoms to those who have tested positive for antibodies that might protect them against reinfection. “I don’t think we’re going to accept it if they try to make us wear cards around our necks to go to the grocery store,” he said.

Caregivers stand in front of protesters at the main entrance to the Arizona Capitol at a rally to ‘reopen’ Arizona against the governor’s stay-at-home order © Ross D. Franklin/AP

Such attitudes could hamper efforts to introduce test-and-trace approaches being explored in Asia and Europe.

“The US will find it harder to implement a back-to-normal plan that requires infringements or limits on liberty,” said Arthur Caplan, a professor of medical ethics at the New York University Langone Medical Center.

“Some of the people who backed Trump don’t trust government or scientists, or what they call the ‘deep state’. You’re going to see organised resistance — people saying ‘I’m not doing that’ — which poses lots of challenges to screen and trace.”

The US could instead cobble together a voluntary test-and-trace regime, supplemented by US corporations that demand their workers be tested as a condition of employment.

“Realistically, it will be a ‘bottom-up’ approach,” said Dr David Shaywitz, a physician-scientist who advises Silicon Valley companies on health technologies. “It will become clear that the reason for testing is not because the federal government is demanding it, but because you’ll feel more comfortable going to work in a community where you won’t get sick — because it is in your enlightened self-interest.”

Tell us about what’s happening around you. Are jobs being cut? Are workers being put at risk? Send your tips and stories to coronavirus@ft.com

Get alerts on Coronavirus pandemic when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article