One month into a statewide stay-home order that has upended daily life as we know it, protesters took to the downtown streets Saturday and demanded that California reopen.
“I think at [this] point people have had enough and they want to get back to work again,” said retired Point Loma resident Darla Clark, noting many of her friends have lost their jobs. “This is definitely where the cure is going to be worse than the disease.”
The rally, which mirrored several others staged across the nation in the last week, ignored repeated calls from health experts and local public officials to keep the restrictions in place for potentially several weeks longer to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The “Freedom Rally” drew at least 200 people — many carrying American flags and posters and wearing Trump 2020 hats. Most were not wearing masks or practicing social distancing. An unknown number of additional protesters chose to stay in their vehicles and drove by honking and waving U.S. flags from their windows.
Protesters demanded that businesses, schools, churches, parks and beaches be reopened. Many expressed that the coronavirus was “a flu” and pointed to the low number of positive cases in the region and state.
On Saturday, the county reported that the number of locals to test positive for the coronavirus had risen to 2,213 cases.
The number of hospitalizations, at 537 people, inches closer to a quarter of the locals who have tested positive for the virus.
The number of local residents to succumb to the virus grew by one, a 58-year-old man, with total fatalities reaching 71. That accounts for about 3% of the local cases.
California public health officials Saturday also released the names of 261 skilled nursing facilities with at least one coronavirus infection case, a list that includes 11 sites in San Diego County.
Locally, those with the highest number of cases among patients were both in El Cajon: Country Hills Post-Acute, with 19 patients, and Bradley Court, with 12. Several sites reported no patients but at least one healthcare worker had contracted the virus.
San Diego’s protest happened a day after President Trump tweeted “LIBERATE” in reference to three other states with Democratic governors.
The event’s host, Naomi Israel, encouraged demonstrators in a Facebook post to tweet at the president, who “mentioned last night that we have the right to peacefully assemble and protest against the governors orders!”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom said during a press conference Saturday that the protests were not surprising and he imagines there will be more.
“I just want to encourage people, when you practice your free speech — which I don’t embrace, I celebrate — just do so safely,” Newsom said. “This virus knows no political ideology.”
Five San Diego police officers stood watch over the two-hour protest, keeping their distance across the street.
Police spokesman Lt. Shawn Takeuchi said officers were not looking to cite the protesters.
“We are balancing the need to enforce and citing people for not social distancing with the anger, frustration that people have for being quarantined the last month,” Takeuchi said.
He said officers were keeping a cautious eye on the crowd to make sure no crimes such as vandalism were committed.
“We are going to allow people to protest and vent their frustration,” Takeuchi said. “We hope that the crowd dissipates quickly so we can prevent further spread of this virus in the community.”
The stance was different from the one the Sheriff’s Department took a week earlier, when three migrant advocates who participated in a car rally outside the Otay Mesa Detention Center were cited for unlawful use of a horn, violating the stay-home order and driving without insurance. The 15-minute rally was protesting the treatment of people infected with the coronavirus inside the facility.
However, when the same migrant advocacy group held a car rally in downtown San Diego on March 31, San Diego police did not cite anyone.
Asked for a response to the protests, county spokesman Michael Workman said that the order is in place to protect public health.
“We would hope people would abide by the order,” he wrote in an email. “The entire order. Which includes social distancing. Any violation of social distancing increases the risk to public health.”
On Saturday, participants stood in large clusters on the four corners of Broadway and State Street as well as the median strip. Children waved little American flags next to their parents, and some carried small posters.
Protesters held signs that read, “COVID-19 is less of a threat than government control,” “Liberate America” and “Isolation of the healthy is tyranny.” There were also signs expressing distrust in the media.
Recent national and local polls found that a vast majority of Americans showed support for stay-at-home orders. A poll of 1,990 voters conducted by Politico/Morning Consult showed that 81% supported continuing social distancing for as long as needed. Only 10% supported ending social distancing to stimulate the economy.
A poll of 2,000 Los Angeles residents released last week by Loyola Marymount University found that 95% of respondents were in support of officials’ decision to implement a stay-at-home-order.
Seventy-six percent of residents who identified as conservative viewed the virus as a real threat, compared with 91% among those who identify as liberals, according to the poll.
County and state officials have been reticent to quickly reopen public spaces, citing the need for more medical supplies and better testing capabilities first. Public health authorities are also waiting for clear signs that illnesses have peaked.
Ella Conrad, a commercial real estate owner, said she’s had enough of the state’s stay-at-home order. Conrad said she still has to pay the mortgage on her properties, yet many of her tenants are not paying rent.
“I’m going to lose a third of my income this year,” Conrad said. “Everything is just tanking.”
Lopez-Villafana and Figueroa write for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Staff writer Jennifer Van Grove contributed to this story.