OLYMPIA — More than 2,000 demonstrators, including a GOP state representative who called for a rebellion, appeared at the Washington State Capitol on Sunday to urge Gov. Jay Inslee to lift the stay-at-home order put in place to limit the spread of the new coronavirus.
Featuring speeches by conservative lawmakers and candidates for office, as well as right-wing organizers, the rally was in violation of both the governor’s order and the guidance of public health officials across the state and country.
The protest of the stay-at-home order echoed similar demonstrations sweeping across statehouses around the nation. And while polling shows broad support for stay-at-home orders, Sunday’s gathering highlighted the partisan divide in how citizens perceive the virus.
Washington’s stay-at-home order is currently scheduled through the end of the day on May 4, though it could be extended. The state Department of Health reported on Sunday an additional 10 deaths from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, bringing the total to 634. The number of confirmed cases in Washington stands at 11,790, the agency said Sunday, after removing some cases from the total because “data cleaning” showed that they were out-of-state.
A trio of Republican state lawmakers violating the governor’s order underscored the rift in perception of the virus and government response. GOP Rep. Jim Walsh of Aberdeen, who helped promote the rally on social media, spoke to those gathered. So did Republican Reps. Vicki Kraft of Vancouver and Robert Sutherland of Granite Falls.
Sutherland — whose 39th legislative district seat falls largely in Snohomish County, one of the hardest-hit by the virus — went the farthest. He urged those gathered to start a revolt if state officials tried to enforce the temporary ban on recreational fishing.
“We’re starting a rebellion in Washington, we’re not listening to this governor, we’re taking our state back,” Sutherland told those gathered.
“When we go fishing, they’re going to send their guys with guns, and they’re going to write us tickets,” said Sutherland, who carried a pistol tucked into his pants. “Governor, you send men with guns after us for going fishing, we’ll see what a revolution looks like.”
“You send your goons with guns, we will defend ourselves,” he added later.
In a prepared statement, Inslee denounced Republican legislators who stoked the protest and called on Republican leaders to “speak out against such rhetoric from their members.”
“These are difficult and frustrating times. I understand the urgency of this crisis,” Inslee said. “I support free speech. But crowd counts or speeches won’t determine our course. This isn’t about politics. It can only be about doing what is best for the health of all Washingtonians.”
In a statement Monday morning, Washington State Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich didn’t address Sunday’s calls for rebellion or the lack of social-distancing to prevent the virus from potentially spreading among demonstrators. But he said state residents were frustrated and worried about the economic shutdown.
Those frustrations, said Heimlich, included the governor’s decision to deem some activities — like residential construction and recreational fishing — as non-essential and not allowed under the stay-at-home order.
“The Governor is not listening to the people, and has offered no hope and no path forward,” Heimlich said in prepared remarks. “People are suffering, financially and emotionally under the stress of trying to provide for their families. The Governor has shown no concern for them.”
Carrying American flags, as well as Trump flags and Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, demonstrators broke Sunday into thunderous chants of “USA” and “Vote Jay out.”
Families brought their children, gun-rights advocates brought their pistols and semiautomatic rifles. Some demonstrators wore masks — including a few N95 masks — or bandannas. Many more went without face coverings, and few practiced the social distancing guidelines of staying 6 feet apart from each other.
Many chafed at the stay-at-home order, which shuttered thousands of businesses and temporarily bans large gatherings, as violations of the state and U.S. constitutions. Others showed frustration with the economic shutdown resulting from the pandemic.
Between 2,000 and 2,500 demonstrators appeared at the Capitol, according to a crowd estimate by the Washington State Patrol, whose troopers Sunday donned masks beneath their broad-brimmed hats.
The rally stayed peaceful and troopers made no arrests, according to State Patrol spokesman Chris Loftis.
“We appreciate that people have the need to express their concerns but again encourage everyone to honor the current restrictions on gatherings and travel,” Loftis added in an email.
Speaking through a bullhorn at the beginning of the rally, organizer Tyler Miller said he had contacted Inslee’s office several times asking the governor to change his stay-at-home order, but never heard back.
“We cannot have a government and a governor that does not listen to his own citizens,” said Miller, a 39-year-old engineering technician and Bremerton resident.
The protest was encouraged by some Republican officials, both national and local. As small, armed protests popped up in Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia, President Donald Trump last week tweeted “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
On a Sunday morning national TV appearance, Inslee denounced the president’s actions, saying Trump was encouraging people to “violate the law.”
“I can’t remember any time in my time in America we have seen such a thing,” Inslee said on ABC’s “This Week.” “It is dangerous, because it could inspire people to ignore things that could save their lives.”
“And it is doubly frustrating to us governors,” Inslee added. “The president is asking people ‘please ignore [U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony] Fauci, [White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah] Birx, please ignore my own guidelines I set forth.’ ”
In Washington, Republican legislative leaders have proposed allowing some businesses, such as residential construction, dentists and auto dealers to reopen immediately.
“There are worthwhile conversations going on at the Governor’s office regarding a restart to the economy,” House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, wrote on Facebook earlier this month. “One thing you won’t see me do is attack his motives.”
But several conservative Republican lawmakers, tired of the shutdown orders, have gone much further, speaking in harsher and harsher terms recently about defying the governor and public health officials.
Walsh cast the rally in revolutionary terms, posting a flyer emblazoned “Give me liberty or give me death,” and noting that the protest fell on the anniversary of the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Lexington.
Meanwhile, Sutherland in a Facebook post said he told Inslee staff that if the governor wouldn’t set a date to lift the restrictions, “We should set May 1st 2020 as the date we take back our Freedom.”
Also on Facebook, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, linked to a story by The Washington Post on a proposal by governors and public health officials to ramp up testing and track down the contacts of anyone who’s tested positive — classic epidemiological practices, but deployed on a larger-than-ever scale.
“Now the deep state is proposing Communist Chinese style, freedom destroying, liberty crushing techniques to fight the Communist China Virus,” Ericksen wrote.
The state Democratic Party condemned Sunday’s protest, since mass gatherings help spread the virus.
“Every Republican in Washington state should speak out to urge compliance with public health orders and anyone who doesn’t is endangering the health of everyone in our state,” Party Chair Tina Podlodowski said.
Nationally, public opinion is firmly on the side of continuing with closures and social distancing until the virus is under control. A recent Pew survey of 5,000 Americans found 66% were concerned restrictions would be lifted too quickly, while 32% were concerned restrictions wouldn’t be lifted soon enough. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday found similarly: 58% of Americans were worried about lifting restrictions too soon, while only 32% were worried about lifting them too slowly.