WASHINGTON — A crowd of a few thousand gathered at Wisconsin’s State Capitol Friday, the latest demonstration by conservative activists against statewide stay-at-home orders meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The crowd, bearing Trump campaign attire, Tea Party regalia and American flags, condemned Gov. Tony Evers and his extension of “Safer at Home,” a statewide declaration requiring Wisconsinites to practice social distancing through May 26.
It was the nation’s largest gathering to date to condemn stay-at-home orders enacted by state and local governments. And while Wisconsin’s elected Republicans and party officials encouraged people to attend, none spoke and just a handful were spotted in the crowd.
“You’re being told to sit down and shut up because your opinion does not matter and you have to listen to professionals,” Madison Elmer, one of the event’s organizers, told the crowd at the beginning of the event. “You know what, you shouldn’t ever stop questioning the professionals.”
Three separate conservative groups called for people who were opposed to Mr. Evers’s extension of the stay-at-home mandate to convene at the Capitol on Friday. In addition to a Wisconsin group that had thousands of RSVPs to its Facebook event, a caravan of business owners from the Milwaukee suburbs and a third group organized by a Minnesota gun-rights enthusiast said they would clog the streets of downtown Madison with their vehicles.
Few in the crowd wore the protective face coverings public health officials have advised people to use outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic. A parade of speakers lamented that local stores and restaurants are closed by the state’s order, but retailers like Walmart are considered essential and remain open.
And yet both the speakers and those in the audience presented a cavalcade of grievances. One woman in the crowd shouted: “Open up the playgrounds, my kids want to play,” which brought cheers.
“Staying indoors and worrying about the epidemic is more dangerous than going outside,” said Dr. Timothy W. Allen, a family physician from Cudahy, a Milwaukee suburb. “According to the evidence, you’re more likely to die by staying at home. You need to look at all lives, not just Covid lives.”
Earlier, at least 20 vehicles had gathered in the parking lot in Delafield, about an hour outside of Madison. Drivers mounted American flags, yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flags, which are a Tea Party emblem, and signs protesting the stay-at-home order.
“We want Governor Evers to open up all businesses in the state immediately before everybody goes out of business,” said Bob Tarantino, a real estate agent who helped organized the caravan. “The curve, in the first 30 days, has gone as flat as it can possibly be — I don’t know how much flatter it can get.”
The protests come nearly three weeks after Wisconsin held the nation’s first in-person election as the country was wracked with the coronavirus pandemic. Since the April 7 contest, at least 19 people who voted in person or served as poll workers have tested positive for the virus.
Wisconsin’s leading legislative Republicans, including Robin Vos, the Assembly speaker, have sued Mr. Evers to try to overturn the extension of the state stay-at-home order. Mr. Vos encouraged people to gather in Madison Friday but declined to say if he would attend or if he believed it was safe to do so. President Trump has encouraged uprisings against stay-at-home orders issued by Democratic governors in several states, though he has not spoken out against the Wisconsin order.
“Trump, Robin Vos and Wisconsin Republicans bear personal responsibility for the protests taking place today and the infections that will spread because of them,” Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said Friday. “They believe they can benefit politically,” he said if they try to ignore “the dangerous science of coronavirus and its spread.”
Mr. Evers’s administration denied the protesters’ request for a permit to hold a demonstration for 1,000 people on the Capitol grounds, which sit on a narrow isthmus connecting two large Madison lakes.
Both the protesters and Mr. Evers said the event will go on anyway. The governor on Thursday said he did not plan to enforce social distancing mandates on the protesters.
“I don’t think you’ll see the Capitol Police out there or other law officers out there with a yard stick to see if people are too close or too far away,” Mr. Evers said during a video news conference.
Reid J. Epstein reported from Washington and Kay Nolan from Madison and Delafield, Wis.