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For protesters in Huntington Beach, social and economic restrictions are political; COVID-19, a ‘hoax’

Demonstrators crowd the intersection at Main Street and Walnut Avenue in downtown Huntington Beach on Friday to protest against social distancing and the economic shutdown.
Demonstrators crowd the intersection at Main Street and Walnut Avenue in downtown Huntington Beach on Friday to protest against social distancing and the economic shutdown.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Friday afternoon was a picturesque day during spring break: warm weather, few clouds and a clear horizon off the shores of Huntington Beach. Many people would have been at the beaches, if not for the mandated stay-at-home orders.

Instead, some gathered on Main Street to protest the ongoing social and economic restrictions that are part of city, state and national efforts to suppress and control the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID-19 A test run at socialism”

“Liberate Huntington Beach”

“OPEN CALI NOW”

“We deem our governor non-essential. Stop the tyranny”

These were some of the signs accompanying the approximately 200 people who flanked the corners of the intersection of Main Street and Walnut Avenue Friday. Others were merely spectators capturing the activity on their cell phones.

Event organizer Lisa Collins walked around the crowded intersection, where passersby held signs out of car windows accompanied by honks of horns. Others slowed down to take videos.

Collins, wearing a Gadsden flag tied around her neck, carried a sign proclaiming “COVID-19 A test run at socialism” on one side of a poster board and "#Open California” on the other.

She captured video of the protesters and spectators rolling through in their vehicles.

“It’s time that California opens back up,” Collins said. “We can’t [complain] about our freedoms and liberties being taken away if we aren’t willing to do something.”

“Now is the time,” she said. “We’ve complied ... It’s time for America to get back to work.”

Protesters hold signs and wave flags at the intersection of Main Street and Walnut Avenue in downtown Huntington Beach on Friday.
Protesters hold signs and wave flags at the intersection of Main Street and Walnut Avenue in downtown Huntington Beach on Friday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Collins, who identified herself as an Orange County resident, said she is thankful she is still able to work her job in manufacturing. However, she said her pay has been cut. Likewise, she’s seen friends and family suffer layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts.

“Very little” action had been taken in California, “and California is a state that people watch,” Collins said. She said she was motivated to act.

Collins and fellow organizers spread news of the event online and through social media and future events are in the works, she said.

The Huntington Beach Police Department released a statement on Facebook reminding the public of the current stay-at-home order that includes a ban on large gatherings and a graphic demonstrating the recommendation to keep a six-foot distance from others.

“Our department, along with law enforcement in general, is in a difficult spot given the circumstances the stay at home order has had on peoples’ lives while upholding minor violations of the law,” the statement said. “This does not mean we condone the protest, nor will we ignore future gatherings such as these, but we do understand people’s emotions are high and many are frustrated with the current executive order.”

Collins said she appreciated the extra publicity.

The dozen or so officers at the scene, including Police Chief Rob Handy, did not intervene. By 2:30 p.m., crowds began to thin out, police said.

Huntington Beach resident Marcia Hoist carried a tote bag with a flag, but said she decided it was too large to pull out. She came to participate because she said she felt that the restrictions were an overstep.

Hoist’s friend John Graf also came out to document the event for his YouTube channel.

“We believe this is a hoax,” Graf said.

A message written on a man's back reads, "CHINA LIED PEOPLE DIED," as demonstrators crowd the intersection at Main Street and Walnut Avenue in downtown Huntington Beach on Friday.
A message written on a man’s back reads, “CHINA LIED PEOPLE DIED,” as demonstrators crowd the intersection at Main Street and Walnut Avenue in downtown Huntington Beach on Friday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

In the background, chants of “U-S-A!” rose in volume with interjections of “Never again will they do this!”

“The turnout is really good,” Graf said, standing behind the crowd on the intersection’s southern corner. “People realize it’s just a cold.”

A woman in blue hospital scrubs and a respirator mask walked her bicycle — complete with a flower-covered basket through the crowds and headed north on Walnut away from the protest, stopping to look back at the gathering.

The woman, a Newport Beach resident who said she works in hospital administration but declined to give her name, had come to downtown Huntington Beach to pick up her bike before her shift at the hospital, and wasn’t aware of the event.

“This blows me away,” she said. “People are dying — and at an alarming rate!”

On Friday, the OC Health Care Agency reported 77 new cases and three new deaths, bringing the number of cumulative cases in the county to 1,501 and 28 deaths associated with the virus. There are 129 COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized, the health care agency said. Huntington Beach has had 103 cases, according to the data.

The healthcare worker said she had seen a friend from her Huntington Beach church moments earlier. “He said he is tired of his rights being taken away,” the woman said.

“This has nothing to do with politics ... It’s science!” she added. “This is a mob mentality,” she said, noting the police presence but lack of action.

Reflecting on the interaction with her friend, she said, “I can’t argue with him … I had to turn away. I wished him peace.”

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