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Have States With Lockdown Protests Been Hit Harder By Unemployment?

Thursday’s unemployment numbers — 4.4 million initial claims filed for the week ending April 18, according to the Department of Labor — followed the general trend we’ve seen the past few weeks. After spiking to 6.9 million for the week ending on March 28, the number of new seasonally adjusted claims has gone down each successive week, though the numbers are still astronomical. About 26.5 million Americans have filed for unemployment over the past five weeks, the same number you would get if you added up the initial-claims numbers from March 14 going back to Nov. 25 … of 2017.

Just to put all of this further in perspective: If the total U.S. labor force is 163 million strong, at least 16 percent of it has now lost a job since mid-March. (And that’s without even accounting for the previous unemployment rate of around 3.5 percent that existed before the coronavirus really hit the U.S.) COVID-19 is creating an unemployment crisis unlike anything America has seen in a very, very long time.

Perhaps that explains some of why we’re beginning to see backlash against the full stay-at-home orders that have been enacted in 42 states and the District of Columbia as a means of slowing the coronavirus’s spread.1 A number of states have seen protesters descend on their capitols to decry the lockdowns, and the governors of several states, including Georgia and South Carolina, have announced plans to reopen their economies.

Public outcry is not exactly unexpected when frustrations mount over lost wages in the middle of a national disaster. But are the protests really about unemployment and economic hardship? In some states, it would make sense — if you add up the advance unemployment claims2 filed in Michigan since March 15, they account for 24 percent of the state’s labor force. That’s a massive amount of unemployment, the likes of which would seem to be driving the anger we saw in Lansing last week. However, the relationship isn’t nearly as clear-cut when you look at every state.

Overall, according to news reports, there were 28 states over the past week with gatherings of at least 100 people protesting stay-at-home orders and six with at least 1,000 people, out of a possible 42 states (plus Washington, D.C.) with shelter-in-place orders. When looking at what would predict whether a locked-down state would have a protest of at least 100 people, we broke down each state based on the share of the labor force that has filed advance claims since March 15; the state’s number of confirmed coronavirus cases;3 the number of days since the state enacted the lockdown; and the party affiliation of the governor. Here are the averages in each of those categories, depending on whether the state saw a protest:

Protest states have had less COVID-19 — and unemployment

Economic, public-health and political averages among states (and the District of Columbia) with lockdown orders, by whether the state had an anti-lockdown protest of at least 100 people

States with…
Protests No Protest
Count 28 15
Advance claims as share of labor force 15.0% 16.3%
COVID-19 cases per million 1,933.3 2,685.0
Days since lockdown 26.5 26.9
Share w/ Democratic governors* 57.1% 60.0%

*Including the mayor of Washington, D.C.

Sources: Department of Labor, The New York Times

None of the differences above are statistically significant, but they do show a few interesting trends about which states have protests — and why. On average, states with protests have 28 percent fewer confirmed coronavirus cases than states without protests, which might play into a mindset that places the economic fallout of the crisis ahead of the virus’s health implications. But states with protests have also seen smaller shares of their workforce file advance unemployment claims than their counterparts, which suggests that the protests are not purely economic in nature. (Although 15 percent of the labor force filing for unemployment in a five-week span is certainly not nothing.) Protest states have also been under lockdown for slightly fewer days, on average, than states without protests.

Perhaps most surprising in this breakdown is that a larger share of protest states had Republican governors than the states without protests, given the perception (from states like Michigan and California) that protesters — often organized by conservative interest groups — were trying to undermine Democratic governors’ stay-at-home orders. (Then again, maybe this simply speaks to a more right-leaning tendency for the populations of states that saw protests.)

As the job-loss numbers continue to pile up over the coming weeks, we may see even more people pile out of their houses to argue against the coronavirus stay-at-home orders. But the numbers above show that there’s more than just economics at work behind the protests.

Sara Ziegler contributed research.


  1. Though even in states without full stay-at-home orders, many nonessential businesses have been shut down.

  2. Which are not exactly the same as initial claims but correlate with them and are tracked on a weekly basis at the state level.

  3. Through April 21.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.