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Birx says protesters not practicing social distancing are 'devastatingly worrisome'

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says some protesters "depicted some of the worst racism and awful parts of our history in this country."
Image: Demonstrators protest stay-at-home orders outside of Los Angeles City Hall on May 1, 2020.
Demonstrators protest stay-at-home orders outside Los Angeles City Hall on Friday, May 1, 2020.Frederic J. Brown / AFP - Getty Images

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said Sunday that anti-lockdown protests are "devastatingly worrisome" because demonstrators who do not practice social distancing measures could contract the illness and pass it on to others back home.

"It's devastatingly worrisome to me personally, because if they go home and infect their grandmother or their grandfather who has a comorbid condition and they have a serious or a very ... unfortunate outcome, they will feel guilty for the rest of [their] lives," Birx said. "So we need to protect each other at the same time we're voicing our discontent."

Protests against coronavirus restrictions took place in at least 10 states Friday. Many of the demonstrations were sparsely attended, but others, like one in Huntington Beach, California, drew large crowds.

As was the case at earlier protests, many protesters last week eschewed social distancing guidelines and gathered in close proximity. The protests have also had a conservative bent, organized by right-wing groups and featuring protesters wearing President Donald Trump's campaign gear or waving "Don't Tread on Me" flags.

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Demonstrators at the Michigan Capitol building Thursday stormed inside as lawmakers were debating an extension of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's state of emergency response. Whitmer, a Democrat who last month extended her stay-at-home order but eased some guidelines, has faced pushback over the restrictions.

Her state is one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 43,000 documented cases and 4,000 deaths attributed to the disease.

"We know that people are not all happy about taking this stay-at-home posture," Whitmer said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." "And you know what? I'm not, either. But the fact of the matter is we have to listen to the epidemiologists and health experts, and displays like the one we saw at our Capitol is not representative of who we are.

"There were swastikas and Confederate flags and nooses and people with assault rifles, and that's a very small group of people when you think about the fact this is a state of almost 10 million people, the vast majority of whom are doing the right thing, and that's why we've seen our curve get pushed down," she continued.

Trump, who has encouraged protesters, tweeted in support of the Michigan demonstrators Friday, saying Whitmer "should give a little, and put out the fire."

"These are very good people, but they are angry," he said. "They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal."

Asked about Trump's support for the protesters, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Friday that Trump "was referencing generally that in this country you have a First Amendment right to protest."

"I think that's something we all treasure here, and we should, rightfully," she said, adding that Trump "encourages everyone to protest lawfully and also to engage in our social distancing guidelines, which we think all Americans should engage in."

But Whitmer said Sunday that some of the protesters displayed "some of the worst racism and awful parts of our history in this country."

"The Confederate flags and nooses, the swastikas, the behavior that you have seen in all of the clips is not representative of who we are in Michigan," she said. "And the fact of the matter is, I mean, we're in a global pandemic. This isn't something we just negotiate ourselves out of and it's a political matter.

"Whether you agree with me or not, I'm working to protect your life if you live in the state of Michigan," she added. "I'm going to continue to do my job, regardless of what tweets come out or what polls come out or what people think that is — makes sense. We're going to listen to facts and science, because we have got to get this right."

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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, was asked Sunday on CNN about comments Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., made at a sparsely attended ReOpen Maryland rally Saturday. Harris, pointing to restrictions on religious gatherings, said he "didn't wake up in Communist China" or "North Korea ... and tomorrow morning, I should be able to go to the church of my choice and worship the way I choose."

Hogan said: "Well, first of all, look, I think everybody has a right to protest and express their feelings. A couple of dozen people did so yesterday, and they have every right to do that. Sadly, we had far more people die yesterday in Maryland than we had protesters."

Harris has "obviously got the right to say whatever crazy things he wants to say," Hogan added. "But I don't really need to respond to him."