WRAL Investigates

Raleigh police break up crowd protesting to #ReopenNC

Posted April 14, 2020 12:10 p.m. EDT
Updated April 14, 2020 4:07 p.m. EDT

— Dozens of people, many wearing red, white and blue and waving American flags, gathered outside the Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh Tuesday to protest the statewide stay-at-home order that has shut down businesses and crippled North Carolina's economy in an attempt to slow and contain the spread of coronavirus.

The order, issued March 27 by Gov. Roy Cooper, prohibits gatherings of 10 or more people, closes businesses not considered "essential," and asks people to stay home other than trips to buy groceries, pick up prescriptions, visit a health care provider, exercise, care for family members, volunteer to serve the needy or visit a place of worship.

The order as established was to last for 30 days. But with just over two weeks left in that original plan, a group demanding the order be lifted gathered to honk, chant and protest on Tuesday.

Those calls come one day after tighter restrictions took effect for those retailers that have been allowed to remain open.

"I am so proud of us," said Ashley Smith, a Boone business owner and co-founder of the Facebook group called ReopenNC. "We will continue to work day and night until our governor opens up for business."

But Raleigh police disagreed. After observing the crowd for about an hour, officers determined it was too many people too close together and asked them to disperse.

"If you fail to leave, if you do not disperse, you will be subject to a physical arrest and taken to the jail," an officer on a bullhorn told the crowd.

Most got in their vehicles and continued the protest by blowing their horns, but one woman who failed to leave was taken away in handcuffs. Monica Faith Ussery, 51, of Holly Springs, faces a single misdemeanor charge of violation of executive order.

Organizer Smith has questioned whether the state had additional data about the spread of the coronavirus and the state's efforts that would better inform the conversation about whether and when to reopen.

"We have God-given rights that are infringed upon right now, as we speak, every day that this state remains closed," she said.

"The economic disaster that's going to happen if they make us stay home over and over is going to be worse than any COVID-19 problems that we've had," said rally participant David Engstrom.

The group, which already has more than 22,000 followers, feels the government's reaction to the coronavirus has been overly restrictive.

"People feel like their freedoms and their rights are being infringed upon, and their businesses are suffering," Smith said. "I think the risk does not merit the measures that we're taking to prevent it."

Cooper has said it will take more than protests to convince him it is safe to lift the stay-at-home order, most notably a slower rate of infections, hospitalizations and deaths. North Carolina reported 16 deaths Tuesday, the highest one-day total to date.

Total NC coronavirus cases, deaths, hospitalizations

Reporters at WRAL News are tracking real-time updates of the latest cumulative totals of lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths across North Carolina. The number of patients currently hospitalized are reported daily by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services every morning and are a reflection of a daily survey of hospitals. Because the response rate of that survey varies day to day, we're showing a rolling 7-day average of hospitalizations calculated since the state began reporting numbers consistently on March 24.

Source: DHHS, county health departments
Graphic: Tyler Dukes, WRAL

Mark McClellan, director of the Robert J. Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University, disagrees.

"The stay-at-home orders have been really important in containing the spread of this epidemic," says McClellan, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"Right now, we're not ready" to ease up on business restrictions, he says, "but I think we can be in a matter of weeks."

McClellan says several factors need to go into that decision, like a consistent downward trend in cases, increased testing and tracing capabilities, and ensuring health care can handle a possible surge in cases.

Still, McClellan says the virus will leave a permanent impact. "We can make progress and we can do it soon, but it's not going to be going back to the way it was before," he said.

Smith said she doesn't feel her group's message is disrespectful to health care workers who are urging the public to stay home. But the decision to open or close a business, or go shopping, should be left up to individuals, she said.

"I believe that North Carolinians are intelligent enough to make their own decisions on social distancing and their own health care choices," she said.

She promised her group would return to the State Capitol each Tuesday until North Carolina reopens for business.

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