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Protests, confrontations rise amid tensions over easing coronavirus restrictions

COMMACK, NEW YORK - MAY 01:  Protesters hold signs during the Re-Open America rally on May 01, 2020 in Commack, New York.  New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has stated that he will consider easing shut-down requirements in regions of the state beginning May 15th. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
COMMACK, NEW YORK - MAY 01: Protesters hold signs during the Re-Open America rally on May 01, 2020 in Commack, New York. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has stated that he will consider easing shut-down requirements in regions of the state beginning May 15th. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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As states across the country phase out restrictions on businesses and social activity aimed at containing the coronavirus outbreak, the sense of solidarity with which Americans greeted the crisis has begun to fray in some communities, but experts say an undue rush to return to normal could endanger the progress that has been made so far.

“We’re in this together, and we need to operate as a whole for everyone, protecting everyone else,” said Thomas Russo, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo.

Protesters took to the streets in several states over the weekend, including one group that gathered outside Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s home, calling for state and local officials to lift lockdowns and ease social distancing restrictions. In Philadelphia Friday, dozens of cars circled City Hall, some decorated with signs promoting President Donald Trump’s reelection, to demand the reopening of the city.

About 1,500 protesters marched in Olympia, Washington against Gov. Jay Inslee’s orders to stay at home, many of them standing side-by-side, ignoring social distancing mandates. Police told KOMO the crowd was more belligerent than past protests, but there were no major problems.

There have been major problems elsewhere, though. Police in two Michigan cities are investigating the murder of a Family Dollar security guard and the assault of a clerk after they confronted customers about not wearing masks.

In New York City, police are searching for a man who caused more than $1,000 worth of damage in a Wendy’s after being told he was required to put on a mask. At a Los Angeles Target, a security guard suffered two broken arms in a fight with bare-faced customers being escorted out of the store.

The Fresno, California Police Department is reviewing an officer’s behavior after he detained a man waiting to eat at the Waffle Shop restaurant that was defying the city’s stay-at-home order by allowing diners to eat inside Sunday. The man told KPMH he was just trying to support a small business on Mother’s Day.

The Waffle Shop was fined $1,000 Friday for opening illegally, but some customers have been supportive of the decision anyway. Fresno City Councilmember Garry Bredefeld vowed to eat at the restaurant and praised the owners for exercising their constitutional rights in the fact of a “tyrannical and authoritarian government.”

A Massachusetts ice cream shop owner promptly announced he was closing “until something resembling normal returns” less than 24 hours after reopening Friday because customers grew rude and verbally abusive to staff because it took to long to fill orders following new rules. Citing “the outpouring of love and support from all around the world,” the store opened again Sunday with customers behaving more civilly.

A 25-year-old Austin, Texas man has been charged with assault of a public servant for allegedly pushing a park ranger into a lake over social distancing restrictions last week. The incident was caught on tape, and the suspect’s attorney says he is “embarrassed about his actions.”

The atmosphere in many areas is becoming politicized, as well. A Texas judge who jailed a Dallas salon owner for violating the governor’s order to remain closed faced swift backlash last week from many, including the governor, who then decreed no one should be imprisoned for failing to obey his directive. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was among the salon’s first customers after the owner was released from custody.

Elsewhere in Texas, police arrested several armed protesters at a demonstration in support of an Odessa bar that had reopened weeks before drinking establishments are supposed to resume operations. The situation escalated into a confrontation between a police SWAT team and members of Open Texas, an armed group traveling around the state trying to help reopen businesses, but no one was injured.

"I think some rights were taken away from us which one of them was like a right to survive. We have to survive and I think those rights were stripped from us," the restaurant’s owner, Gabrielle Ellison, told a local newspaper.

The rising tensions across the country come as the economic fallout from the pandemic grows more dire. The April jobs report released Friday was one of the worst on record, with unemployment jumping to nearly 15%, and White House officials say the next monthly report could be even worse.

The White House is dealing with problems of its own, with aides to President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence testing positive for the coronavirus and critics questioning officials’ resistance to following federal public health guidance. The president continues to press states to reopen, though, even as deaths near 80,000 and experts expect cases to rise significantly in the weeks ahead.

With most states lifting at least some restrictions, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington revised its death toll projection upward again Sunday, now predicting 137,184 deaths in the U.S. by the beginning of August. That is about 3,000 more than the model estimated last week but nearly twice what researchers were expecting a month ago.

“The increase is explained primarily by people’s movements, as captured in anonymous mobility data from cell phones,” said IHME Director Dr. Christopher Murray in a statement. “We’re also seeing fewer deaths expected in some states; however, we’re now forecasting slower downward trajectories in deaths after states hit their peaks in daily deaths.”

Murray noted significant increases in mobility patterns in about 20 states beginning even before governors started relaxing restrictions.

“Unless and until we see accelerated testing, contact tracing, isolating people who test positive, and widespread use of masks in public, there is a significant likelihood of new infections,” he said.

While 80,000 deaths in a matter of months amount to the worst public health crisis the nation has faced in recent memory, it is still far short of the most disastrous projections that were made before widespread mitigation efforts were underway, leading some to view the unprecedented public health response as an overreaction. Craig Klugman, a bioethicist and medical anthropologist at DePaul University, cited a similar backlash against precautions taken during the 1976 flu pandemic that prevented it from becoming too severe.

“One of the ironies of public health is that when it works, nothing happens. No one gets sick and no one dies,” Klugman said.

Data collected by the Maryland Transportation Institute at the University of Maryland found a significant downtick in social distancing across the country as some states began easing lockdown orders in late April. The institute’s metric quantifying compliance with restrictions dropped by 12 points between April 23 and May 1, including people staying home less and traveling more.

“What’s particularly interesting is that the large increases in the number of trips is not attributable to the reopened businesses alone,” MTI Director Lei Zhang said. “People are responding to partial reopening by making more trips across the board.”

Despite the eagerness from some to get back to normal, polls suggest most Americans are still reluctant to abandon protocols they believe have prevented the outbreak from overwhelming the health care system and saved lives. A Pew Research Center poll released last week found 68% of Americans are concerned states are reopening too quickly, but conservatives are more likely to fear things are moving too slowly.

An Associated Press/NORC survey released Monday showed 55% of Americans disapprove of protests against social distancing restrictions, while about one-third support them. There has been a slight drop in support for continued lockdowns over the last two weeks, but about seven-in-ten respondents still favor requiring people to stay in homes and keeping restaurants closed.

A new poll presents a more nuanced picture of public opinion, with 71% of respondents saying officials have either not gone far enough or have struck the right balance so far, but 60% saying every business should be allowed to reopen with safe social distancing protocols. Even among those who feel the government has not done enough to shut things down, nearly 40% say businesses should reopen.

Experts stress most Americans are still complying with the rules and remaining civil. They see a number of political, cultural, and economic reasons why others have begun to resist in increasingly aggressive ways in what is genuinely a difficult situation for many.

“I don’t think that people are angry at mask-wearing, but are angry at what it represents—a complete upheaval of the lives we had before COVID-19: The loss of employment, the loss of school, the loss of social interactions,” Klugman said. “When we are grieving all of the changes and losses, the mask becomes an easy symbol to funnel our anger into.”

He pointed to polling that shows most Americans believe it is too early to resume normal life and are willing to wear masks in public. A vocal minority might also be influenced by public officials who refuse to put on masks or practice social distancing.

“The anger we are seeing now is, in part, because people generally do not like being told what to do,” said Jason Roberts, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “This is especially true when it comes to personal behavior like wearing a mask or something like that. There are also small groups of people who are inherently skeptical of the government and question the reason for the restrictions. You also have millions of people who have lost jobs, businesses, etcetera.”

According to Russo, conflicting information from the government about how the virus spreads and how effective masks can be may also be playing a role. Federal officials initially advised the public against wearing masks but later reversed that recommendation.

“Early on, there was a lot of emphasis on washing your hands and being careful about touching your nose, eyes, and mouth, but I think we were a little slow about educating people about masks,” he said.

There are no easy answers when public health needs and economic interests conflict, but the current status quo might not be sustainable, even if infections continue to rise.

“I think we are reaching a point of isolation fatigue...,” Klugman said. “As the weather gets nicer, we want to go outside. We are tired of being away from friends, family, and co-workers. And given that a vaccine is at least a year away, if there will ever be one, we do not have a sense of hope that we will return to our old lives anytime soon, if ever.”

Americans tend to rise to the challenge when their country calls them to serve, but some may already be stretched to their limits. With additional stimulus efforts stalled in Congress, many people do not have the financial resources to continue living in these conditions, so states must find a way to ease restrictions while keeping the public safe.

“I think governors and mayors are under extreme pressure to get this right,” Roberts said. “None of them want to unnecessarily keep the economy shut down, but at the same time, I think they all fear being blamed if things are opened too quickly and have to be shutdown again due to a wave of deaths or infections.”

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People may not like new rules that slow down service or limit occupancy of restaurants and they might bristle at being told to wear a mask, but Russo said that is the price Americans need to pay to reopen businesses safely and avoid backsliding into lockdowns. They have made similar compromises for the greater good in the past.

“We learned to accept the trade-offs with the security line in the airport Libertarians don’t like seat belts, but seat belts are an important public health measure that saves lives,” he said.

However, the longer Americans are out of work, out of money, and isolated from their day-to-day lives, the harder it could become to convince them those trade-offs are worth the cost.

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“History tells us that you never see a population that is hungry remain compliant with any set of rules for very long,” Roberts said.

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