Hundreds of protestors rallied against stay-at-home orders in Michigan's capital on Thursday and a legal tug-of-war over coronavirus restrictions was taking place in neighboring Wisconsin as lockdown debates turn bitterly partisan in the United States.
About 200 demonstrators, according to the Michigan state police, including some armed with guns, milled around outside the closed state capitol building in a steady rain in defiance of Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer's lockdown orders.
"Defend Our Constitution. Patriots Stand Up!" read posters carried by the protestors, some of whom also displayed their support for Republican President Donald Trump.
There were a few counter-protestors including a man with a sign saying "Whitmer Keeping our Most Vulnerable Safe" and a woman with "I Stand With Whitmer" written on her arm.
Michigan, home to the US auto industry, is expected to play a key role in the November presidential election and has become a hot spot for right-wing opposition to stay-at-home directives.
Partisan divisions have also been playing out in Wisconsin, another election battleground, where Republican lawmakers launched a legal challenge to an extension of lockdown orders by Democratic Governor Tony Evers.
They got a boost on Wednesday when the conservative-dominated Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the governor's extension of the lockdown to May 26, a ruling welcomed by Trump.
"The Great State of Wisconsin... was just given another win," Trump tweeted. "Its Democrat Governor was forced by the courts to let the State Open. The people want to get on with their lives."
Despite the court ruling, a number of city and county officials across the agricultural state said they would continue to comply with the governor's stay-at-home orders or take their own measures.
While Wisconsin is not one of the hardest hit US states, it has recorded more than 10,900 virus cases and over 400 deaths.
With more than 48,000 COVID-19 cases and 4,714 deaths, Michigan has the fourth-most fatalities in the United States.
- 'Political moment' -
Whitmer, who has emerged as a potential running-mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, imposed tough lockdown orders in a bid to stem the outbreak.
She has relaxed some restrictions on non-essential businesses and recreation but her "Stay Home, Stay Safe" directive has been extended until May 28.
The 48-year-old former prosecutor affectionately known as "Big Gretch" has condemned the presence of guns at the demonstrations and said the gatherings "make it likelier" she will have to further extend the lockdown.
During an April 30 protest in Lansing, armed demonstrators entered the capitol lobby and were blocked by police from entering the legislative chamber.
Thursday's protest, which was smaller than previous gatherings, was peaceful although there was a brief scuffle when a woman grabbed a doll which a man was dangling from a noose.
Whitmer, speaking to MLive on Thursday, said she recognized "this is a hard time, there's a lot of anxiety, there's a lot of fear.
"And yet, right now, it's more important than ever that we are vigilant," she said. "If people let their guard down we could see COVID-19 start to climb again."
The governor said this should not be a "political moment" and she condemned displays of Confederate flags and "Nazi symbolism" at the protests.
On Wednesday, Whitmer said that while "Michigan certainly is in play in the 2020 election," she is "going to make decisions based on facts not based on political rhetoric or tweets for that matter."
Her tweet reference was to Trump, who has repeatedly inserted himself into the Michigan debate.
- 72 pc approval -
Trump is eager to reboot the devastated US economy ahead of November but has delivered mixed messages when it comes to reopening the country.
While urging state governors to adhere to federal guidelines on reopening safely, he has also said they should relax restrictions.
A day after the first protest in Michigan a month ago Trump tweeted "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!"
Following the second large protest there two weeks ago he said Whitmer should "make a deal" with the protestors, calling them "very good people."
Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by a slim 10,000 votes in Michigan in 2016 and by just 23,000 votes in Wisconsin, and winning the states is seen as crucial to his re-election hopes.
While Michigan has become a focal point for anti-lockdown protests, Whitmer enjoys widespread approval of her handling of the coronavirus outbreak in the state.
In a Washington Post-Ipsos poll, 72 percent of Michigan residents said they approved of her actions while 25 percent disapproved.
Only 43 percent of the Americans surveyed approved Trump's handling of the pandemic, which has left more than 84,000 people dead in the United States.