People across the country resisted the health safety guidelines put forth by state legislatures in order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. A large portion of these guidelines include encouraging individuals to wear protective face masks in public, as well as practicing social distancing.
According to The Washington Post, many found these masks or face coverings to be an uncomfortable nuisance. As tensions and frustrations escalate, some are calling the face-covering mandate an overreach of government. As a result, protests surfaced within several states.
In an article from the Poynter Institute, Arizona Republic reporter BrieAnna J. Frank said she was disturbed to see how many individuals were angered by her decision to wear a protective face mask. Frank and her fellow journalists reported on the individuals who gathered as President Trump visited an Arizona Honeywell location. Many attendees refused to wear any type of protective face covering and disregarded social distancing during their gathering. Frank said she and her colleagues were subjected to bullying and harassment because of their choice to wear protective masks.
“It honestly floored me that these folks were so angered by my personal decision to wear a mask,” Frank said. “I had told them when they initially asked about my mask that my mother is a nurse on a COVID unit and that I do my best to protect myself and those around me.”
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine recently issued a formal response to those protesting the health safety policies within his state, according to an article from The Washington Post. Gov. DeWine’s reaction came after Ohio protesters began targeting journalists and the state’s health chief.
“Videos showed one protester antagonizing an NBC4 Columbus reporter in a face mask, ignoring the reporter’s requests to stay six feet away while accusing the reporter of ‘terrifying the general public,’” The Washington Post reported.
Gov. DeWine made a point of telling protesters to demonstrate against him instead of those choosing to wear face coverings, mainly because he is their elected official and therefore in charge of state policy. He then publicly questioned why demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights would choose to target journalists who are simply exercising their own First Amendment rights by reporting on the situation.
On April 20, hundreds of people gathered at the Arizona Capitol to protest Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order. In response, Phoenix nurse Lauren Leander, along with several of her hospital co-workers, engaged in a silent counter-protest. This effort involved Leander and her colleagues wearing protective face masks and hospital scrubs, going to the capitol building steps and silently standing in front of those protesting the health safety orders.
Leander was recently interviewed by the Freedom Forum via Zoom Video Communications. According to its website, the foundation's mission is to foster First Amendment rights for everyone. It also works to raise awareness of First Amendment freedoms through education, advocacy and sharing the stories of Americans who have exercised their own First Amendment rights, such as Leander.
Over the past two months, Leander worked full-time in her hospital’s COVID-19 critical care department. Leander said the pandemic forced many nurses and health care professionals to think of new ways to care for patients that are both safe and efficient. Leander said being a health care worker during the pandemic has been emotionally straining.
“I haven’t hugged anyone or seen my family for two months,” Leander said. “It’s been difficult having my work shift as my only social interaction.”
Leander said their decision to hold a silent counter-protest was largely spurred by the fact that individuals were gathering by the thousands with no protective masks and defying stay-at-home orders. She explained that it was disheartening to see protests against state health orders garner so much support because no health care worker would ever endorse such movements given the current circumstances.
Leander said the nurses knew they had to be careful with how they approached the situation because of how on-edge most people were. They ultimately decided that silence would be their best defense, due to the tenseness of the situation and how many people were on the verge of violence.
“We weren’t there to tell them that they were wrong or that their struggles didn’t matter,” Leander said. “We were really there to be a placeholder for our patients."
Many obscenities were shouted at Leander and her colleagues, including theories about who they were — very few people believed they were real nurses, Leander said. She explained that most of the protesters standing in front of them claimed the nurses were actors being paid by the government.
Along with disregarding their positions as health care workers, Leander said the protesters did not hesitate to get as close as one or two feet away from them. Many nurses were shocked about the number of protesters who perceived the virus as a hoax, Leander added, especially through their indifference to social distancing and intentional coughing on the nurses. Leander said these individuals would say they were coughing the “fake virus” onto her and her colleagues.
“It was difficult to feel like the enemy and a bit like a punching bag that day because I’d never really felt that before,” Leander said. “We could feel tension escalating as people started walking toward the capitol. We felt really lucky that there were [Department of Public Safety] officers stationed directly behind us to make sure we were safe.”
When they realized how many of the angry protesters were openly carrying firearms — including masked men with assault rifles — Leander said she and her colleagues truly felt frightened. In this moment, Leander said they knew that silence was still their best option.
Leander reaffirmed that the nurses attended the protest in order to advocate for those who could not be there with them. More specifically, they were supporting the patients in their hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) who were extremely sick due to this pandemic.
As Arizona begins to reopen and find a new normal, Leander asked the public to remember the health care workers who are still navigating the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the patients who continue to fight for their lives.
“As people move forward with this new normal, I ask that they still find ways to fight alongside us,” Leander said. “Wear your masks in grocery stores, wash your hands and limit your gatherings.”
To her fellow health care workers across the country, Leander said they are in this crisis together. She explained that social media is an amazing way for health care workers to show support and stand together, even while separated. Although her protest was silent, Leander said if she had displayed a sign during the counter-protest, it would have read: Help me help you.
Laura Blank, a clinical professor at the NAU School of Nursing, said she was immensely proud when she saw Leander on the news. She added that Leander truly represented nurses across the nation because much of the general public has no idea what these health care workers face regularly.
“[Leander] stood straight and silent, while people went right up to her and verbally abused her,” Blank said. “Lauren's message was clear and very powerful.”
After watching a television interview with Leander, Blank said she was sincerely moved. In the interview, Blank said, Leander explained that despite the protesters' ignorance, she would still care for them if they ever arrived at her hospital. Blank said she hopes Leander’s silent protest, along with the current media coverage of nurses across the country, will show the public just how essential nurses are to health care, especially during this pandemic.