Dr Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force co-ordinator, said scenes of anti-lockdown protesters gathering without masks were “devastatingly worrisome” as governors come under increasing pressure to lift coronavirus restrictions.
Protests broke out last week across several states, including Kentucky, Florida and Oregon, as people demanded the reopening of businesses and leisure facilities closed by governors in an attempt to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
In Michigan, hundreds of protesters stormed the state Capitol building, many without wearing masks or practising social distancing.
When asked about such scenes on Fox News on Sunday, Dr Birx said people risked infecting their loved ones. “It’s devastatingly worrisome to me personally, because if they go home and infect their grandmother or grandfather who has a co-morbid condition, and they have a serious or unfortunate outcome, they will feel guilty for the rest of their lives,” said Dr Birx. “So we need to protect each other at the same time we’re voicing our discontent.”
Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan, hit out at protesters carrying weapons, confederate flags and, in at least one case a swastika, as representing the “worst racism and awful parts” of US history.
“We have to listen to the epidemiologist and health experts and displays like the one we saw at our capitol is not representative of who we are,” said Ms Whitmer, who has insisted lockdown conditions must stay in place for the time being.
The protests have continued amid diverging responses from local governments across the US, with some states extending lockdown conditions even as others ease restrictions and encourage a return to normality.
In Ohio, which is set to launch a phased reopening this week, people will not be required to wear face masks into stores after governor Mike DeWine withdrew his initial order that shoppers wore masks. “People were not going to accept the government telling them what to do,” said Mr DeWine on ABC News on Sunday. “And so we put out dozens and dozens of orders, that was one that it just went too far.”
In New Jersey, which has enforced strict lockdown conditions but reopened some parks and golf courses this weekend, governor Phil Murphy said people were still obeying social distancing rules.
Mr Murphy also expressed disappointment in protesters gathering without obeying those restrictions. “I don’t begrudge their right to protest,” he said on Fox News on Sunday. “My biggest issue is they were congregating without face masks.”
Some states have more aggressively relaxed coronavirus restrictions. In Georgia, Republican governor Brian Kemp has said gyms, hair salons and tattoo parlours can all reopen, leaving small business owners with tough decisions to make about whether to stay closed or not.
When asked if some states were reopening too soon, Dr Birx said the coronavirus task force and federal guidelines made it “very clear to the American people” what they should do to protect themselves.
“You need to continue to social distance. You need to continue to practise scrupulous handwashing. You need to know where your hands have been and what they have touched and make sure you don’t touch your face,” said Dr Birx.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow on Sunday said the Trump administration could consider further financial assistance for states and local governments in another stimulus package, but alluded to earlier comments made by President Donald Trump that funding might be withheld from states with so-called sanctuary cities.
Mr Kudlow said sanctuary cities, which limit the co-operation between local law enforcement agencies and immigration authorities, “is a long-run issue that could be attended to now”.
“I don’t want to get ahead of the curve. He hasn’t made up his mind yet,” said Mr Kudlow, referring to the president. “So we will see about the state aid.”
The threat to make emergency funding for local governments contingent on adhering to federal immigration policies sets the scene for a political battle over the strings attached to any financial assistance to governors and mayors.
At a press conference last Wednesday, Mr Trump said: “I don’t think you should have sanctuary cities if they get that kind of aid. You know, if you’re going to get aid to the cities and states for the kind of numbers you’re talking about — billions of dollars — I don’t think you should have sanctuary cities.”