Heather Marie Hopper, a 38-year-old living in Lebanon, Tenn., attended the first protest of her life on Sunday. Along with about 300 others, Hopper defied a stay-at-home mandate by Gov. Bill Lee (R) and stood outside the state Capitol building in Nashville. Hopper, who owns a cleaning business, was trying to convince her state to open back up nonessential businesses. She held a sign that read, “Your fear doesn’t trump our freedom.” Fellow protesters “got a kick” out of her husband’s, which said, “My wife needs to work. I hid all of the knives, but she’s getting warmer.”
Hopper had been fine with the stay-at-home order — which limits activities for Tennesseans to only “essential” ones, such as grocery shopping or going to the pharmacy — when it first went into effect March 31, several days after neighboring Kentucky put its order into place. But then the National Parks and local parks started closing, and that’s when she decided she wouldn’t “stand back and let the government take all your rights away and tell you where you can go,” she says. After one of her friends invited her to a group called #FreeTN on Facebook — which now has more than 7,000 followers and touts “rallying together in support of our Constitutional rights” — she decided she’d take part in the protest.
Meanwhile, the same day, Heather DeBord was carrying out essential work — at the zoo. A 48-year-old living in Knoxville, Tenn., DeBord is taking special shifts during the pandemic. She’s a keeper of reptiles, and Sunday was a big feeding day for her tortoises. Although she’d heard of other anti-lockdown protests around the country, she didn’t learn about the Tennessee protests until later that night, when she got home and logged onto Twitter.
Her initial reaction? “I think I rolled my eyes so hard I sprained them,” she says. “I know people are going stir crazy and are spending too much time watching the stock market. But when people start putting dollars ahead of human lives, it’s very, very frustrating.”
As of Sunday, Tennessee, which has a population of 6.8 million, had more than 7,000 confirmed cases of covid-19 and 152 deaths. Health-care professionals across the country are still urging strict social distancing measures in order to “flatten the curve.” They say these measures are essential in preventing the virus from spreading exponentially. On Monday, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) announced that some businesses would be able to reopen as early as Friday, even though models say that the state shouldn’t start relaxing social distancing measures until June 12.
Across the country — from Denver to Trenton, N.J., to Seattle, not far from the original epicenter of the pandemic in the United States — people have been rejecting social distancing guidelines and protesting stay-at-home orders. The rallies have only increased in recent days, ever since President Trump defended protesters and argued that some governors have “gone too far” with their measures. (Many governors have pushed back on that sentiment, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who said Trump’s defense of the protesters wasn’t “helpful.”) Tweeting Friday, Trump called to “liberate” Minnesota, Virginia and Michigan — all of which saw protests last week, are considered swing states and are helmed by Democratic governors.
The partisanship was especially prominent in Michigan, where protesters swarmed the state Capitol and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) became the target of much of their ire. As The Washington Post reports, the protesters, many in “Make America Great Again” hats and some waving President Trump signs, chanted “Lock her up” and “We will not comply.”
For Kristen Pietrafese, a 34-year-old who lives outside of Knoxville, the Tennessee protest, which she called “irresponsible,” was clearly infused with politics. Although her circle of friends is taking the pandemic “pretty seriously,” she’s also “more liberal than most people here,” she says. Tennessee is a solidly red state, with a Republican governor and two Republican senators.
Her message to fellow Tennesseans is that they need to take covid-19 seriously. “We have to follow guidelines from health care professionals, not politicians,” Pietrafese says.
Hopper, the cleaning business owner, wasn’t a fan of Trump back in 2016. But after her family’s economic situation improved while he was in office, she became one. And that was a big reason she showed up to the Nashville rally: She says she’s gone from making a couple thousand dollars a month to a couple hundred. Across the country, more than 22 million people are out of work, and the fallout from the pandemic has already sent the stock market into a volatile tailspin.
Politics weren’t a big reason why Vanessa Green, a 36-year-old living in Clarksville, Tenn., attended Sunday’s protest, she says. Instead, Green, who runs a guitar studio, wanted to oppose what she calls “government overreach.” In particular, Green believes it is “unjust” that her county, Montgomery, has classified opening a nonessential business a class A misdemeanor.
Green says that at some point during the rally, counter-protesters started driving past the Capitol with their own signs — “I’ll see you in a mass grave,” “Go home, covidiot.” Many others expressed dismay on social media — and saw their sentiments pick up steam online.
DeBord, the zookeeper, says she wants the world to return to normal “just as much as anyone.” But she’s wary that there’s not yet a long-term testing plan in place to curb the outbreak. Without one, she says, cases could easily start climbing again.
“We’re just going to be wading through a nightmare of sickness,” DeBord says. “And I have underlying conditions. Until we have testing available and a reliable treatment, we need to stay at home out of respect for our fellow human beings.”