(Michigan Office of the Governor via AP, Pool) Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
(Michigan Office of the Governor via AP, Pool)

Wisconsin’s protest is among others apparently seeded by a national conspiracist effort.

Even as the statewide stay-home order is working to stop the spread of COVID-19 and the virus curve is flattening, a right-wing conspiracy “news” site is promoting a mass gathering next week at the State Capitol in Madison to try to get Gov. Tony Evers to “open up Wisconsin.”

As of Thursday morning — the day after conservatives equipped with firearms, MAGA hats, and Confederate flags clogged the streets in Lansing, Michigan, for a similar protest — more than 750 people on Facebook have marked themselves as “going” to the Wisconsin event and more than 3,500 are interested. The rally is scheduled for 1 p.m. on April 24, four hours after the stay-home order was originally set to expire. 

Evers extended the order on Thursday through May 26.

Yet the organizers of the “Wisconsin Freedom Rally” are still planning to march on the Capitol, whether or not protesters follow official social distancing guidelines. Children are welcome, according to the event description.

“The Surgeon General has said 98% will recover just fine from COVID-19… What about the lives and businesses that have been completely ruined?” wrote Thomas Leager, one of the event’s organizers and the self-described libertarian-populist co-founder of right-wing site The Free Men Report.

Leager did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

The recovery estimate Leager cited has been outdated for some time.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams gave that number in a Fox News interview in early March. As of Thursday morning, the coronavirus fatality rate in the U.S. is 4.5 percent among confirmed cases, with 32,000 dead out of more than 650,000 confirmed cases, according to Johns Hopkins University

In Wisconsin, the mortality rate is slightly higher at 4.9 percent, according to the latest numbers from the state Department of Health Services. Of the state’s 3,875 confirmed cases, 197 patients died, and nearly 30 percent of COVID-19 patients in Wisconsin end up hospitalized, according to DHS numbers.

“Orders are in place for the safety of our community and gathering to protest them puts everyone in danger,” said Sarah Mattes, communications supervisor with the Madison-Dane County Health Department.

Mattes said the Health Department was aware of the event and is “working with the Madison Police Department and Capitol Police to review the situation to ensure the governor’s orders are followed.” It’s unclear if law enforcement would make arrests or issue citations. Mattes said law enforcement is discussing the possibilities and “there could potentially be consequences” for protesters and organizers.

Violating the stay-home order is a misdemeanor and could result in 30 days in jail, a $250 fine, or both.

In a call with reporters Thursday, Evers acknowledged the protests but did not condemn them. 

“First Amendment rights are really pretty cool,” he said before urging any protesters to practice social distancing.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took a stronger stance, saying, “We know that this rally endangered people. This kind of activity will put more people at risk and, sadly, it could prolong the amount of time we have to be in this posture.”

But the science and expert advice amid the global pandemic seems lost on some.

“At what point do you stop complying and take back your rights?” reads an image shared to the event by another organizer.

The Freedom Rally appears to have ties to a national right-wing conspiracy blog, American Revolution 2.0, that aims to organize such protests in every state. In a video posted Wednesday, host Josh Ellis implores his viewers to stop posting conspiracy theories in the comments to “help keep us uncensored for a little longer.”

Ellis commented on the Freedom Rally’s event page on Facebook, “We are organizing a national movement for every State.”

‘Some people may not get the message’

Other Wisconsin residents are balking at government limits on public gatherings, saying such efforts to restrict people from leaving their homes aren’t necessary and represent a government overreach. 

Members of a group called Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine say forcing people to remain at home is hurting the economy and is no longer necessary to protect people’s health. The group’s private Facebook group lists more than 30,000 members. 

“It’s time to OPEN OUR STATE and STOP Gov. Evers’ Excessive Quarantine!” a statement on the group reads. “Politicians are on a power trip, controlling our lives, destroying our businesses, passing laws behind the cover of darkness and forcing us to hand over our freedoms and our livelihood!”

Others said they also are frustrated by the extension of the “Safer at Home” order. Wausau resident Larry Seidl said he understands that people staying home in recent weeks helped slow the spread of the virus, but argued extending those rules for another five weeks isn’t necessary and represents too much government control. 

“Look how bad the economy is hurting already, and then you’re going to extend this until the end of May?” Seidl said. “It just doesn’t make sense. The number of (coronavirus) cases here doesn’t merit this kind of reaction. This isn’t New York.”  

Evers’ original order restricted state residents’ travel to essential trips only. That restriction is in addition to previous government orders to close workplaces, schools, restaurants, and taverns. Limits were placed on public gatherings, limiting them to less than 10 people.   

Evers and public health advocates throughout the state have repeatedly stated that restricting personal contact through such measures as staying home as much as possible and social distancing measures when near others are the best way of limiting the continued spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus illness that attacks the lungs and can be deadly. 

“Some people may not get the message and just focus on what’s been taken away,” Evers said.

UpNorthNews reporter Julian Emerson contributed to this report.