California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, promised “meaningful” adjustments to stay-at-home orders in the coming days as thousands of protesters gathered across the state in defiance of the lockdown.
Demonstrations took place from the capital of Sacramento to San Francisco and San Diego, while large crowds turned out in Orange county’s Huntington Beach, a recent flashpoint after Newsom ordered beaches there to close.
Newsom said that the state was “getting very close” to making changes that would affect how businesses, including restaurants, could operate, and urged residents to be patient. He said the announcement of the changes would come in “days, not weeks”.
Nearly 3,000 people protested in Huntington Beach on Friday, the city’s police chief told the OC Register. The Huntington Beach protest followed the closure of beaches in Orange county after a weekend when tens of thousands of people hit the sands south of Los Angeles county, which had been closed for weeks. Newsom scolded local residents for defying the spirit of the stay-at-home order, and responded by ordering all beaches in the county to temporarily close.
“I served in the army and fought tyrants and dictators overseas and this has gone too far,” one protester told the Los Angeles Times. “I didn’t do that to come back here and live under a tyrant in my own country.”
Many of the Huntington Beach protesters brought their children along with them, the Los Angeles Times reported, with one protester saying he had come with his wife and three young children because it was important to show that the protesters are “normal people”.
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In Sacramento, the state’s capital, a packed crowd of protesters faced off with lines of riot cops in a tense and chaotic protest on Friday afternoon.
“Traitors!” the protesters screamed at police, according to a livestream of the protest produced by reporters from the Sacramento Bee.
Some protesters held signs questioning whether the coronavirus is real or promoting anti-vaccine conspiracies, while others protested the closure of businesses during the pandemic, arguing that all jobs are essential. Almost none of the protesters were wearing masks, according to reporters and photographers at the scene.
The California Highway Patrol (CHP) had announced that it would be barring protests at the capitol because of a lack of social distancing by participants at a previous rally, but protesters gathered on the steps of the capitol regardless, chanting “Whose house? Our house!”
The CHP repeatedly ordered the protesters to disperse, the Sacramento Bee reported, and by 3pm, a line of law enforcement in full riot gear had slowly pushed protesters back from the capitol steps towards the street.
Other protests were smaller: only about 150 people rallied in San Francisco, and hundreds in San Diego, according to local news reports.
The rallies across California against Newsom’s stay-at-home orders came as a rural county in northern California became the first to defy statewide orders by allowing nonessential businesses to reopen and diners to eat in restaurants. Modoc county, in the state’s far north-east corner, near Oregon, had no Covid-19 cases, a local official told the Associated Press.
In his Friday news conference, Newsom said he empathized with the protesters’ “frustration and concern and deeply understandable anxiety about the economy and the fate and future of their families”, and said that the state was trying to work closely to respond to the concerns of more rural areas of the state.
“We’re paying attention to you,” Newsom said, speaking to the state’s rural residents. “We recognize the economic pain.”
But the availability of testing for coronavirus had also lagged in rural areas, Newsom said later, highlighting the dangers of reopening the economy too quickly.
Asked about his response to protesters calling him a tyrant and a fascist, Newsom simply urged Californians to “take care of yourself”.
“Wear a face covering,” he said. “Do justice to physical distancing. You don’t want to contract this disease.”
People who showed no symptoms could still spread the virus, Newsom warned the protesters. “Protect yourself. Protect your family. Protect your kids, your parents.”
The governor passed on responsibility to local law enforcement officials for dealing with the fraught question of whether protesters who were violating social distancing guidelines should be arrested. He said he could not possibly monitor and respond to every protest happening across the state.
“I have confidence in local law enforcement, incredible confidence,” Newsom said.
In Sacramento, where many protesters were flouting social distancing guidelines, at least one person had been arrested, according to the Sacramento Bee.
Newsom defended his announcement that changes in shelter-in-place would come in “many days”, rather than weeks, and said that the move was motivated by the data, not just by the political resistance bubbling up across the state.
More than 2,000 people have died of coronavirus in California so far, including 91 people in the previous day, but the number of patients in intensive care units stayed flat, and the total number of hospitalizations had fallen slightly, both signs of progress justifying a move towards some changes in the emergency order, Newsom said.
But, “We can screw all that up and set all that back by making bad decisions,” Newsom said, adding that these positive signed are only possible “because people have done an incredible job in their physical distancing,” he said.
“Thousands of people congregating together, not practicing social distancing or physical distancing,” could undermine the current progress in preventing the spread of the virus, the governor said. “If we can avoid that, we can get to the other side with modifications a lot quicker.”
Agencies contributed reporting