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‘Live Free or Die’: Protesters march against California stay-at-home rules in Huntington Beach

A group of more than 100 protesters converged on Huntington Beach on Friday in a demonstration against California’s coronavirus stay-at-home rules, part of a series of national demonstrations organized by conservative groups.

The protesters — some with Trump banners and American flags — mostly were not wearing masks or practicing social distancing by standing at least six feet apart. And they offered views about the spread of the coronavirus that differed sharply from scientific findings and experts’ recommendations.

One of the first people to trickle into the afternoon’s protest in Huntington Beach was 62-year-old Paula Doyle.

The Costa Mesa resident arrived with a hand-held American flag and a “Live Free or Die” sign and was “sick” of social distancing and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order, which she said was “killing business.”

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“I don’t think there’s any reason for us to be on lockdown now,” she said shortly after arguing with another Trump supporter who was in favor of quarantine. “We didn’t have any dangers; we have no danger in our hospitals now of overflowing.”

The comments of protesters fly in the face of what California public health officials and other experts have been saying about the coronavirus.

California’s relatively quick action to close businesses and order residents to stay home has tamped down the coronavirus pandemic and left many hospitals largely empty, waiting for a surge that has yet to come.

 Sarah Mason, from Covina, protests the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

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The initial success of the unprecedented shutdown of schools, businesses and other institutions has pleased experts and public health officials, prompting calls to keep the restrictions in place at least into May to help cement the progress.

Social distancing will be a critical factor. Lifting restrictions too early would likely lead to dangerous new jumps in cases.

Dr. Howard Markel, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan, said earlier this week deploying stay-at-home measures required a degree of patience not to pull back too early.

“If you pull the triggers off too early, not only is there a circulating virus to do what it naturally does, but you will have incurred all the economic and social disruptions of [stay-at-home orders] for nothing,” Markel said in a webinar hosted by the American Public Health Assn. last month.

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Markel said that during the 1918 flu pandemic, more than 20 U.S. cities that relaxed physical distancing orders too quickly — even as the flu virus was still circulating — soon saw a new rise in cases. There will continue to be the threat of the coronavirus being reintroduced in areas where the outbreak has eased.

Singapore, which took early, effective action against the coronavirus, was forced last week to order the closure of schools and nonessential businesses for a month as the numbers of cases rose when residents who lived and studied abroad rushed back home. Officials in Singapore now say it is important to find sustainable ways to slow the virus through the end of the year.

In Lansing, Mich., demonstrators took to the streets, snarling traffic as part of an “Operation Gridlock” rally. Though Michigan has reported more than 1,760 deaths — third-most in the U.S. — the protesters contend Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, went too far in extending a stay-at-home order that, among other things, shuttered indoor restaurants and placed limits on people allowed to work outside the home.

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In Huntington Beach on Friday, protesters were quick to point out that California has not seen the same level of deaths as New York, which was slower to impose social distancing. Doyle said the relatively low number of deaths statewide should not have led to “drastic measures.”

She saw little difference between COVID-19 and the flu (the death rate is actually significantly higher for COVID-19) and credited much of her information to conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham.

“We need to get back to normal ASAP,” said Doyle, adding she’s sent “crazy letters” to the governor explaining as much.

During the protest, police occasionally warned gatherers to clear the streets to allow vehicles to pass.

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Benny White, a 33-year-old Compton resident dressed in a faux white hazmat suit complete with goggles and a Trump 2020 hat, bounced around from corner to corner, often drawing a sizable crowd. The suit had hand-written Sharpie messages that included the name of an extreme right-wing website and “China Lied People Died.”

White accused China of “constantly attacking our president.” White was also angry about social-distancing guidelines and hugged other protesters.

“It’s not dangerous out here. It’s not,” White said. “I’ve seen plenty of people out here. The beaches are open. It’s a nice beautiful day. What are we doing? Stop being a germophobe.”

Anaheim resident Bryan Hunt kept a close eye on officers from the Huntington Beach Police Department.

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The 57-year-old said he was a member of the 31st Field Force Light Foot California State Militia.

“I’m here for one purpose and that is to ensure that the police don’t start beating on citizens,” Hunt said. “I have a cameraman here taking photos and documenting everything. If they step out of line, we’ll get them.”


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