RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Dozens converged on the State Capitol for a rally to reopen Virginia, causing law enforcement to briefly close off the grounds.
The rally in Richmond follows similar protests in other states, including North Carolina, Michigan and Kentucky.
Gov. Ralph Northam said earlier this week that easing coronavirus restrictions too soon could lead to a second surge in the state, citing a Virginia-specific model.
“When people say it’s time to stop what we’re doing and get back to normal, they’re wrong,” Northam said at a press conference Wednesday.
Spread out in front of the governor’s mansion on Thursday, protesters said quarantine has already gone too far. They said the state’s decision to shutdown nonessential businesses is unsustainable and that “societal consequences will be irreversible.”
“The economy should be reopened on 5/1 for healthy citizens continuing enhanced sanitation habits to prevent any virus from spreading,” ReOpen Virginia’s statement said. “Those with compromised immune systems should not have to re-enter the economy or workforce if they do not feel comfortable.”
The person who sent the press release would not identify themselves to 8News. They said the rally had no clear leader but “most organizers” are service industry business owners who didn’t want to damage their reputations.
Floyd Bayne, a 63 year-old from Chesterfield, was happy to share his opinion. “I would like the governor to get the message we’re tired of tyranny,” he said.
Bayne came to the rally even though he’s concerned about his wife, who he said has a compromised immune system.
“When I get home today before I hug my wife and ask her how her day has been, I’m going to change clothes and wash my hands,” Bayne said. “We’re aware there’s a virus and we’re aware that there’s risk but we’re also aware that as free people we should be able to live our lives.”
Will Shaw, a 70 year-old from Louisa County, was one of a handful of people wearing a mask. He said he shaved a beard he’s had for five decades to make sure it fit his face properly.
Shaw acknowledged his age puts him at a higher risk for severe coronavirus symptoms but, when asked if he’s worried about infecting others, he said, “Well I’m wearing a mask and I’m not touching people so I’m not putting anyone at risk.”
In this biological war, some said they shouldn’t have to sacrifice their livelihoods to potentially save the lives of others.
Tarus Woelk, a long-term substitute teacher from Glen Allen, said she’s worried about the economic and psychological toll of the coronavirus response.
“I can’t collect unemployment because I’m not a permanent full time position so that puts me in a predicament,” she said. “I talked to my colleagues and we all went through a period of mourning and grief that we weren’t going to get back with these kids.”
Parents like Arlen Penfield from Goochland brought their children to the rally.
“I think it’s important for them to see this opportunity to stand up for our rights provided to us through the Constitution,” he said. “We are following the social distance guidelines by staying within our family and staying six feet away from other people so there’s not a reason we can’t be hear to voice our opinion.”
The original press release said thousands of people were expected to protest. Capitol Police said about 50 showed up total.
Even though the rally was in violation of the governor’s stay-at-home order and a ban on gatherings of more than 10, Joe Macenka, a spokesperson for Capitol Police, said no fines were issued. He said officers did have to remind people to spread out.
Macenka said they also decided to close Capitol Square about 15 minutes after the rally began, preventing about a dozen people from entering.
Stewart Harris, a constitutional law professor at Lincoln Memorial University, said law enforcement would’ve been within their right to fine rally-goers and even take them into police-custody in extreme cases.
“In this particular circumstance when you have a public health emergency the state has something called police power. Northam’s order is acting pursuant to that power,” Harris said. “The first amendment is not absolute.”
Harris said governments have the authority to regulate the “time, place and manner” of speech. He said keeping people six feet apart is an example of a “manner” restriction.
“They aren’t saying you can’t assemble but if you’re going to do it you have to do it at a safe distance or do it online,” Harris said. “As long as the state isn’t regulating the content of the speech, it’s constitutional.”
To date, more than 200 people in Virginia have died from COVID-19, state health officials reported Thursday. There are nearly 1,400 Virginians in the hospital, including more than 400 in the ICU and more than 200 currently on a ventilator. Gov. Ralph Northam’s office said Wednesday that Virginia will continue to use science and data when making decisions on its restrictions.
“Governor Northam will continue to make decisions based in science, data, and public health. His top priority is — and will continue to be — keeping Virginians safe,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky told 8News.