President Donald Trump has appeared to endorse protests against stringent lockdown measures in several states.
In a series of tweets, he said: “LIBERATE MINNESOTA”, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and then “LIBERATE VIRGINIA”.
Protesters say the severe economic restrictions are hurting citizens, but health officials warn lifting them could spread infection.
The US saw its highest daily death toll on Thursday, recording 4,591 deaths in 24 hours.
That spike could be because Johns Hopkins University, which records the data, began to include deaths with a Covid-19 probable cause.
The US has the highest number of cases and deaths worldwide, more than 672,200 confirmed infections and 33,000 deaths.
Demonstrations calling on authorities to end the shutdown have occurred in Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Minnesota, Utah, Virginia and Kentucky.
The states Mr Trump referenced in Friday’s tweets are all led by Democrats. Ohio and Utah, which he did not mention, have Republican governors.
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More demonstrations are planned, including in Wisconsin, Oregon, Idaho and Texas.
The protests have varied in size, ranging from a few dozen people in Virginia to thousands in Michigan.
The president’s apparent support comes a day after his administration unveiled new guidance for re-opening state economies.
His Friday tweets contrast with his stance on Thursday, where he said he was sympathetic to the demonstrators, but “they seem to be protesters who like me… my opinion is just about the same as all of the governors”.
What does federal guidance say?
That guidance recommends three phases of slowly re-opening businesses and social life, with each phase lasting a minimum of 14 days.
It includes some recommendations across all three phases including good personal hygiene and employers developing policies to ensure social distancing, testing and contact tracing.
Dr Anthony Fauci, from the White House coronavirus taskforce, cautioned that even as restrictions were eased “it’s not game over”.
He warns that the virus may rebound, and there could be setbacks along the way.
Upping the pressure – and political risk
On Friday morning Donald Trump fired off a series of tweets calling for the “liberation” of three states with Democratic governors, as though they were enemy-controlled territory.
The message seems apparent.
The governor of one, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, recently was the target of a mass protest at the state capital against her sweeping lock-down orders. A mixed crowd of conservatives, white nationalists and anti-government militias waved Confederate and pro-Trump flags, and signs accusing Whitmer of dictatorial overreach.
Another of the states, Virginia, had its own capital protests earlier in the year from gun-rights activists.
The president’s social media fusillade suggests his goal is to reward – or encourage – such shows of force from his political base, as opinion polls indicate Trump’s approval rating is sagging after a boost during the early weeks of the outbreak.
Trump followed those incendiary tweets by criticising New York’s Andrew Cuomo, another Democrat, for mishandling the pandemic and spending too much time “complaining”.
Just a day after Trump reportedly told governors in a conference call they would “call the shots” on when to begin easing restrictions, it appears the president wants to up the pressure – and the political risk – for Democrats by other means at his disposal.
Trump has benefitted in the past from a finely tuned sense of the sentiments – and resentments – of his supporters. Friday morning could be an indication that he’s positioning himself to again stand in their midst.
Why are people protesting?
Protesters say stringent restrictions on movement and businesses are an overreaction to the outbreak.
Organisers of the Liberate Minnesota protest wrote on Facebook: “It is not the governor’s place to restrict free movement of Minnesota citizens!”
“President Trump has been very clear that we must get America back to work very quickly or the ‘cure’ to this terrible disease may be the worse option!”
The group added that the state’s economy “will be dealt a death blow” if restrictions continue.
The event now has over 600 attendees marked on Facebook and some 2,800 more users interested in the event.
Earlier this week, in Michigan, thousands of protesting workers blocked roads, demanding the state reopen after Governor Gretchen Whitmer extended stay-at-home restrictions.
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Governor Whitmer is also facing federal lawsuits against her orders shuttering non-essential businesses and limiting travel.
Attorney David Helm, who represents four residents in the lawsuit, told Fox 2 Detroit on Wednesday the governor’s rules were “taking a sledge hammer to an ant” and infringing on people’s constitutional rights.
However, public health experts, and some state governors, including Republican governors, have stressed the importance of social distancing.
“The most potent tool that you have in tool kit is social distancing,” Dr Neha Nanda, the medical director of infection prevention and antimicrobial stewardship at Keck Medicine, University of Southern California, told the BBC.
Because so little is known about the virus or how it can be treated, it makes prevention “more important than anything else,” she added.
The Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, said on Thursday that now “would be the worst possible time” to roll back social distancing in his state.
“Everybody wants to get out economy back,” he told NBC, but he had to ensure “we’re not just ramping things back up and endangering the lives of thousands of people”.