WRAL Investigates

'Three moms who got together': Organizer says ReOpenNC not affiliated with any political group or donor

Posted April 20, 2020 5:34 p.m. EDT
Updated April 20, 2020 6:57 p.m. EDT

— Hundreds of protesters are expected to converge on downtown Raleigh Tuesday to rail against Gov. Roy Cooper's statewide stay-at-home order and demand that businesses across North Carolina be allowed to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.

Cooper's order, which went into effect March 30, effectively closed businesses where large numbers of people congregated, such as movie theaters, and those where providers and customers were in close quarters, such as salons. It remains in effect until the end of the month, and the governor has said he is waiting on data to show that the virus is under control in the state before he eases the restrictions.

"My main concern [is], if we do not get back to work soon, this is not financially sustainable," said Ashley Smith, co-founder of ReOpenNC, which is organizing Tuesday's protest. "What will we have to return to when this is all over with?"

Smith and her supporters argue the economic toll of the stay-at-home order outweighs the public health benefits during the crisis.

More than 640,000 people have filed for unemployment since mid-March, some 12 percent of the state's civilian workforce. The state has roughly 6,900 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the illness associated with the virus, though testing remains limited.

In less than two weeks, ReOpenNC attracted more than 60,000 Facebook members. A few dozen people participated in the group's first protest last week. Now, some politicians plan to join Tuesday's protest, including Republican 9th District Congressman Dan Bishop and state Sen. Vickie Sawyer, R-Iredell.

"It's going to be a talking point for many Republican candidates on the campaign trail," Meredith College political science professor David McLennan said.

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.

"As we've seen the pandemic move forward, we've seen more and more partisanship. So, what we're seeing nationally is the rise of people pushing back for what they see as government overreach," McLennan said. "It does just add more fuel to the partisan fire that's already been there and the fact that the president is encouraging the behavior."

Smith calls herself a conservative and acknowledges similar viewpoints are joining the cause, but she disputes any assertion of outside control of ReOpenNC.

"We're [at] zero funding from any other organization. We're unaffiliated with anyone else," she said. "This was literally three moms who got together who did not like the way things were going in our state and decided to stand up [and] formed a group.

"We are 100 percent grassroots," she added.

Not all Republicans are joining the movement. U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis reiterated Monday his belief that North Carolina cannot rush to reopen because of the health risks.

Also, recent polls show public support for Cooper's response to the crisis and for not reopening businesses too quickly.

McLennan said that, as he sees protests growing around the country, he's reminded of another conservative movement from a decade ago.

"This is very similar to in 2010 the rise of the tea party movement, which started as a grassroots movement [and] then got very much professionalized," he said.

Raleigh police arrested one person at last week's ReopenNC protest, and there's been confusion over whether such gatherings violate the governor's stay-at-home order.

Cooper's general counsel, William McKinney, sent a letter Monday to ReOpenNC's lawyer, stating that a protest isn't against the order as long as people remain at least 6 feet apart to limit the spread of the virus.

Wake County Attorney Scott Warren likewise said that the county's stay-at-home order isn't meant to infringe on anyone's First Amendment rights.

"It is the responsibility of each individual to exercise these rights consistent with time, place and manner restrictions imposed, including social distancing, any condition of an applicable permit, and North Carolina laws relating to assembly," Warren said in an email. "Wake County has no authority to enforce, interpret or restrict enforcement by law enforcement."

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