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@NCCapitol

ReOpenNC rally planned for Tuesday in downtown Raleigh

Posted April 19, 2020 12:40 p.m. EDT
Updated April 20, 2020 3:55 p.m. EDT

— Protesters calling for a quicker reopening of the North Carolina economy amid the coronavirus pandemic plan to rally Tuesday near the governor's mansion and say they'll do so every Tuesday as needed.

Their attorney said members plan to exercise social distancing at the 11 a.m. protest. A once-discussed plan to bus people in has been set aside, attorney Anthony Biller said. Biller says he's asking the governor and Wake County to respond by 2 p.m. tomorrow and resolve this. If not, he says, he'll go to federal court to protect his clients' rights.

Biller sent a letter to the governor's office saying protesters should be able to exercise their First Amendment rights without fear of arrest. "It's easy to have freedom of the press and freedom of assembly when everything is fine, and there is nothing contentious. But it's times like these that we need to be the most diligent about respecting those rights," he added.

Monday 4.20.2020 update: The governor's office responded, saying in a letter that outdoor protesting is allowed under the state's stay-at-home order, provided people stay 6 feet apart.

It's unclear how many people will attend, but 9th District Congressman Dan Bishop, a Charlotte-area Republican, said Saturday that he plans to go, and the group's Facebook page has more than 50,000 members.

ReOpenNC's goal, according to organizer Ashley Smith, is to do away with stay-at-home orders and reopen the state economy in full at the end of April.

"The group is in favor of reopening North Carolina completely on May 1," Smith said Sunday. "I believe that people will continue to make their own judgment calls. ... Social distancing, hand washing, all those things are good practices, but they don't need to be enforced by executive orders."

Gov. Roy Cooper has said the state likely will relax some restrictions in the coming weeks, but he's made it clear others will remain. He has promised careful consideration and to roll out more details soon.

ReOpenNC also rallied last week, largely dispersing after law enforcement said they violated stay-at-home orders limiting mass gatherings to fewer than 10 people. One woman, Monica Ussery, was arrested.

Wake County district attorney Lorrin Freeman says Ussery was only arrested after multiple warnings. She says groups can assemble and exercise their rights while still honoring social-distancing rules. "If people show up on Tuesday and they are doing that, I think you will see from law enforcement is them giving them a wide space in order to do that, and that if things start to appear to be violating the executive orders, then law enforcement is going to warn them," Freeman said.

"At the end of the day, law enforcement has an obligation-- I have an obligation -- to uphold the law, and so we're going to do that," Freeman added.

Biller, who represents Ussery and ReOpenNC co-founder Kristen Elizabeth, sent a letter to Cooper and Wake County Board of Commissioners Chairman Greg Ford this weekend, asking that charges be dropped against Ussery and that mass gathering rules be clarified ahead of Tuesday's protest.

The letter says the group believes economic restrictions over COVID-19, the illness associated with the coronavirus, went to far, given the health impacts seen to date from the virus.

"However laudable the goal, the economic and social consequences of the governmental response to the COVID-19 crisis have been and are real, concrete and harmful," Biller said in his letter. "Yesterday, The Washington Post reported that 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment."

The letter compares COVID-19 to the flu, but the state has already logged more COVID-19 deaths since the first positive test here in early March than from the flu since the flu season began in late September.

In North Carolina, more than 635,000 people have filed for unemployment since March 16, some 12 percent of the state's civilian workforce. The state has roughly 6,400 confirmed cases of COVID-19, though testing remains limited.

At least 190 people have died in less than a month, but a widely cited model predicting a surge of hospitalizations in North Carolina has been downgraded.

As testing increases, it's becoming more apparent that asymptomatic transmission – transmission from people with no cough or other symptoms – is common. At Neuse Correctional Institution, a state prison in Goldsboro with one of the worst outbreaks in the country, some 98 percent of the 250 inmates who tested positive last week were asymptomatic, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

The higher transmission rates may also mean the disease's fatality rate is lower than predicted, a key point for people seeking to dial back government mandates that closed businesses.

Cooper has said repeatedly that the current stay-at-home orders aren't sustainable. The keys now, Cooper and state health officials said last week, are expanding testing to determine the virus' true extent, building a larger team of health officials to do contact tracing on people who test positive and improving trends on case numbers, hospitalizations, deaths and the availability of personal protective gear.

State and national health officials have made it clear the country isn't where it needs to be on testing.

Other states have seen protests in recent days, and President Donald Trump seems to back them. He tweeted simply "LIBERATE MINNESOTA!" on Friday and followed that up with similar tweets for Virginia and Michigan.

There was a protest this weekend in Texas, and video shows a mass of people together chanting, among other things, "Fire Fauci."

Dr. Anthony Fauci heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He frequently appears at the White House's daily press briefings on the coronavirus and has cautioned against reopening the economy too soon.

Recent Gallup polling indicates most Americans prefers a wait-and-see approach on reopening the economy. A Politico/Morning Consult poll found 81 percent of Americans want to continue social distancing as long as is needed despite economic damage.

Fifty-eight percent of respondents to an NBC News / Wall Street Journal poll said they're worried the U.S. will reopen its economy too soon. At least one study, which predates COVID-19, indicates social distancing controls that aren't implemented "cautiously enough to cause the epidemic to be suppressed" may be worse than doing nothing.

There are indications that, because coronavirus transmits through respiratory droplets, shouting may increase transmissions. There are also indications that fresh airflow, even from opening a window, helps lower transmissions.

Biller and Smith both said ReOpenNC will have social distancing measures in place at the outdoor rally. A video posted to YouTube in recent days, purportedly featuring group co-founder Elizabeth, said the group planned to bus people in from eight cities around the state and that an unnamed donor would cover the costs.

"I want every seat filled," the woman says in the video.

But Smith said the group canceled the buses. She said ReOpenNC is "completely grass roots and ... did not accept any donations."

Biller also said the group won't rent buses, though some people have discussed organizing buses for friends and family.

Biller said the plan is for family groups to stay together at the rally, but he said, otherwise, protesters plan to keep 6 feet of separation. His letter to the governor and to Wake County commissioners seeks assurances that "protestors will not be detained, arrested or prosecuted under their quarantine orders so long as at such protests, individuals who are not members of the same household, maintain at least six feet of separation from individuals of other households."

The group has also had conversations with the Raleigh Police Department, Biller said.

The department tweeted during the last rally that "protesting is a non-essential activity," and a department spokeswoman indicated afterward that protesters could be arrested for violating stay-at-home orders regardless of social distancing. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said the department is technically correct, but added that she decides charging language and that arrests will remain a last resort.

Biller's letter asked the governor and the Wake commissioners chair to get back in touch by 2 p.m. Monday.

"If your offices do not provide reasonable assurance and objective standards that preserve my clients’ constitutional rights, we will have no choice but to seek emergency legal relief in advance of Tuesday’s planned protest," the letter states.

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