JEFFERSON CITY — Several hundred protesters rallied outside the state Capitol building Tuesday demanding that Gov. Mike Parson lift restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
Roughly 60 did the same in Clayton, echoing recent demonstrations in other states, as Missouri health officials reported 134 additional cases of the virus and 12 new deaths, down from the peak on April 6 of 355 new cases reported in a single day. Missouri is reporting a total of 5,941 infections and 189 deaths.
Parson has limited gatherings statewide to no more than 10 people and said, “Every person shall abide by social distancing requirements, including maintaining six feet of space between individuals.” He’s also requested that Missourians remain home, without explicitly ordering it. The distancing requirement does not apply to family members and essential workers.
He said last week the state would begin to reopen on May 4 as officials work to expand the state’s testing capacity. Parson, asked about the protests Monday, suggested he and protesters were already at least “somewhat” on the same page.
“Right now in the state of Missouri, we are in the process of starting to reopen our state, which I think is somewhat what the protesters want, and some other issues they have,” he said.
Fifty local public health agencies have also issued orders, according to a count maintained by the Department of Health and Senior Services. Both Parson and Dr. Randall Williams, director of DHSS, said counties would be able to maintain their own health orders after the state’s lifts.
Federal health officials have recommended limiting face-to-face contact with others as much as possible.
The protests came as a new Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll shows that a bipartisan majority of Americans said they want to continue to shelter in place to protect themselves from the coronavirus, despite the impact to the economy. The national online poll from April 15-21 shows that 72% of adults in the U.S. said people should stay at home “until the doctors and public health officials say it is safe.” That included 88% of Democrats, 55% of Republicans, and seven in 10 independents.
Asked about Tuesday’s protests, Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, said reopening the economy too quickly could risk a second spike in infections.
“I very much appreciate and have empathy for people wanting to get back to normal, but we need to get through this phase and think smartly about how we can start to reopen society so that we aren’t in a worse position than we are now,” he said.
In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he was still consulting with experts and mulling changes to his stay-at-home order. He has suggested that the changes may include a mask or face-covering requirement.
Asked about models that predict a peak in infections come mid-May, Pritzker pointed out that his order would have to be in place until at least 14 days after any peak.
Pritzker also announced $112 million in additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits that would make a “real difference.” Families already receiving benefits will get an automatic addition, he said. A simplified application will be available soon for those families with schoolchildren who receive free or reduced meals, he said.
Pritzker said that nearly 140,000 student-loan borrowers would be given a break on their loans as part of the state’s negotiation with 20 private lenders, mirroring what the federal CARES Act did for federal student loans. He said that lenders were offering a series of relief options, including postponing a loan for at least 90 days, waiving late payment fees, a 90-day pause on debt collection lawsuits, and enrollment in borrower assistance programs. He said it was part of a series of state efforts to help financially struggling residents.
Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, reported 1,551 new cases of the coronavirus, bringing the state’s total to 33,059, as well as 119 new deaths, for a total of 1,468. She said that 54% of those whose cases had been reported to health officials two weeks ago reported no symptoms, and 77% of those who whose cases were reported to officials four weeks ago have recovered.
At least 202 people in the St. Louis area have died.
Garza has said that hospitalizations is a clearer measure of the spread of the virus in the community, and models predict that the peak should hit this weekend.
At Tuesday’s protest in Jefferson City, Anne Calzone, 61, of Maries County, held a sign that said “Make 1984 Fiction Again,” referring to the dystopian novel by George Orwell. She said the stay-at-home order infringed upon her constitutional rights.
“I think they can advise, they can give us information, but not tell us we must (stay at home), not in a free country,” Calzone said.
A handful of state representatives also showed up Tuesday: Rep. Tony Lovasco, R-St. Charles County; Rep. John Simmons, R-Washington; Rep. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, who is running for state Senate; and Rep. Jim Neely, R-Cameron.
Neely is running in the August Republican primary for governor against Parson, former state auditor candidate Saundra McDowell and Raleigh Ritter of Seneca.
“People are frustrated that the government has stepped on their toes,” Neely said. “Government has no business telling people who are healthy to stay home.”
Erin Heffernan, Jeremy Kohler and Jack Suntrup of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.