Governors Feel Heat to Reopen From Protesters, President

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -
A man wears combat gear during a demonstration against the government mandated lockdown due to concern about COVID-19 at the State House, April 18, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Stores in Texas can soon begin selling merchandise with curbside service, and hospitals can resume nonessential surgeries. In Florida, people are returning to beaches and parks. And protesters are clamoring for more.

Governors eager to rescue their economies and feeling heat from President Donald Trump are moving to ease restrictions meant to control the spread of the coronavirus, even as new hot spots emerge and experts warn that moving too fast could prove disastrous.

Adding to the pressure are protests against stay-at-home orders organized by small-government groups and Trump supporters. They staged demonstrations Saturday in several cities after the president urged them to “liberate” three states led by Democratic governors.

Protests were planned in Republican-led states, too, including at the the Texas Capitol and in front of the Indiana governor’s home. Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has already said that restrictions will begin easing next week. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb — who signed an agreement with six other Midwestern states to coordinate reopening — said he would extend his stay-at-home order until May 1.

Meanwhile, infections kept surging in the Northeast.

Rhode Island, sandwiched between the hot spots of Massachusetts and New York, has seen a steady daily increase in the number of infections and deaths, with nursing home residents accounting for more than 90 of the state’s 118 deaths. The state’s death rate of around 10 people per 100,000 is among the highest per capita in the nation, according to data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project.

Massachusetts had its highest number of deaths in a single day — 159 — on Friday. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said it would be premature for states to begin lifting restrictions when deaths are still climbing. Citing the advice of health experts, he said states should look for infection rates and hospitalizations to be on the decline for about two weeks before acting.

Trump, whose administration waited months to bolster stockpiles of key medical supplies and equipment, appeared to back protesters.

“LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, ” Trump said in a tweet-storm in which he also lashed out at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, for criticizing the federal response. Cuomo “should spend more time ‘doing’ and less time ‘complaining,’” the president said.

At his Saturday briefing with reporters, Cuomo cited more progress. The daily increase in deaths in New York State fell below 550 for the first time in more than two weeks as hospitalizations continued to decline.

But the crisis is far from over: Hospitals are still reporting nearly 2,000 new COVID-19 patients per day, and nursing homes remain a “feeding frenzy for this virus,” he said.

“We are not at a point when we are going to be reopening anything immediately,” Cuomo said.

In Texas, several hundred people rallied on steps of the state Capitol and called for an end to social restrictions. Many of the protesters sought an immediate lifting of restrictions and chanted “Let us work!” in a state where more than 1 million people have filed for unemployment since the crisis began.

The crowd included anti-vaccine activists and was no larger than a typical weekday rally over issues such as guns or teacher pay, when the Legislature is in session.

Elsewhere, a few hundred demonstrators cheered and waved signs outside the Statehouse in New Hampshire, which has had nearly 1,300 cases of the virus and more than three dozens deaths through Friday.

“Even if the virus were 10 times as dangerous as it is, I still wouldn’t stay inside my home. I’d rather take the risk and be a free person,” said one of the protesters, talk show host Ian Freeman.

Trump is pushing to relax the U.S. lockdown by May 1, a plan that hinges partly on more testing.

Public health officials said the ability to test enough people and trace contacts of those who are infected is crucial before easing up on restrictions, and that infections could surge anew unless people continue to take precautions.