Photo: Reopen protesters rally in Raleigh on April 28. (photo by Owens Daniels)

Three days into Phase 2 of North Carolina’s reopening, Reopen NC is staging Memorial Day rallies in five cities across North Carolina, including Greensboro.

The Greensboro rally, which is scheduled to take place at Governmental Plaza on Monday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., features a trio of Republican speakers including state Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Mark Robinson and former state senator Ron Rabin, along with a local pastor and a teacher. Rallies are also being held in Raleigh, Charlotte, Wilmington and Asheville.

Billed on Facebook as a “ReopenNC Memorial Day Freedom Rally,” the Greensboro event is described as an opportunity to honor military veterans who have died in service to the country and to protest the executive order issued by Gov. Roy Cooper to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Gay Dillard, president of the Greater Greensboro Republican Women’s Club, filed a request to use Governmental Plaza with the Guilford County Security Department. Dillard’s request states that she anticipates 200 people will attend the Greensboro event, but the Facebook event page indicated as of Saturday that only 160 people total planned to attend all five rallies across the state.

Although the form used to request use of the public space includes a condition that requests “be made at least two weeks in advance” and Dillard’s request is dated May 19, county spokesperson Worley Smith said the gathering doesn’t require official permission. “The plaza space has a longstanding history for serving as a public forum and, to my knowledge, does not require an actual permit,” he said in an email to Triad City Beat. “The county does manage and monitor the reservations to ensure that multiple events aren’t overlapping at the same time.”

Dillard said she agreed to help Aryn Schloemer, who was asked to coordinate the Greensboro rally by Ashley Smith, a cofounder of Reopen NC. Dillard added that the Greater Greensboro Republican Women’s Club has not endorsed the rally.

“Why I got involved is I think most of this shutdown is tyranny from the government,” Dillard told TCB. “I don’t think all of this was necessary…. The event on Monday is going to be honoring the veterans who died to have freedom. The government has stepped on our freedom. I know people who have died from this virus — from poor healthcare in Greensboro. I don’t think it was the crisis that that they told us it was.”

When asked why she considers Cooper’s response to the pandemic to be “tyranny” and what actions by a chief executive would be reasonable and within the bounds of the Constitution, Dillard responded that Cooper should have consulted more with the Council of State. Republican Gov. Dan Forest, who is challenging Cooper in the governor’s race, is a member of the Council of State, and has been critical of his opponent’s handling of the pandemic.

“I really believe he is using this crisis for his advantage and he’s not trusting that people use common sense,” Dillard said of Cooper.

Mike Causey said his remarks at the event in Greensboro on Monday will be “mainly thanking veterans for their service — those that have made the ultimate sacrifice — and giving some remembrance to what we’re there for.” He also said he plans to talk about actions that he’s taken as state insurance commissioner in response to the pandemic, including getting insurance companies on board with a new state law that ensures coverage for telehealth to relieve hospitals from overcrowding, and encouraging insurance companies to pass along savings to customers that have been realized through a reduction in auto accidents.

Causey told TCB he didn’t realize the event is a protest.

“I was invited to speak at a Memorial Day event to honor veterans,” he said. “The group that contacted me is called Reopen NC. I’m not aware of it being a protest. I hope it’s just an informational thing. I was told there would be no political speeches or making irreverent comments. That’s why I agreed to do it.”

The political nature of the event is plainly outlined under the “details” section of the Facebook event page: “Will you take a stand against Roy Cooper and his unconstitutional executive order?” And Dillard’s request to use Governmental Plaza describes the purpose of the event as “to protest unlawful closures of churches and businesses by the governor.”

Mark Robinson, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, has closely aligned himself with the reopen movement, speaking at the April 21 rally in Raleigh and shaking hands with protesters. A Second Amendment advocate who rocketed to fame in 2018 when a video clip of him addressing Greensboro City Council went viral in 2018, Robinson’s speeches and social media posts are peppered with scorn for Democrats, the political left, the news media and even Christians who don’t toe the conservative line.

In one Facebook update, posted on May 9, Robinson excoriated all four at once: “As leftist governors across the nation continue to keep churches shut down, many ‘christians’ continue to allow the media to control their thought. I guess that’s how those leftists became governors to begin with.”

Dillard said the reopening of the North Carolina is going too slow.

“There are a lot of people that are suffering from this,” she said. “I guess you’d have to be way at the top to not be affected. If you own a small business, this has been devastating to them. They don’t have two months of savings.”

In a High Point University poll of North Carolina residents conducted in early May, respondents gave Cooper a 60 percent approval rating, compared to only 44 percent for President Trump. A separate poll conducted by Meredith College in late April also found broad support for Cooper’s handling of the pandemic.

“Despite the claims of groups like ReopenNC and President Trump about reopening the economy and getting back to normal, most North Carolinians are paying attention to public health professionals and seeing the impact of the coronavirus firsthand,” David McLennan, director of the Meredith Poll, said at the time. “As such, they are very cautious about resuming pre-COVID-19 activities.”

Not all business owners share the reopen activists’ view that restrictions need to be lifted faster.

Claire Colvin, a founding member of the Triad Food & Beverage Coalition who owns three restaurants in Winston-Salem, characterized independent restaurants as being “still in free fall” in an open letter released on Thursday, the day before the state allowed restaurants to reopen at 50 percent capacity for dine-in service.

“‘Allowing’ restaurants to reopen without financial help, stringent regulations and public (government) support is unconscionable, and it will bankrupt small businesses,” Colvin wrote.

Cary Clifford, who owns Camino Bakery in Winston-Salem, has also expressed support for taking a gradual and careful approach to reopening.

“I’m grateful to our governor,” she told WFDD. “I feel like our state has had a much more reasonable approach. It’s done a really good job of threading that narrow line between trying to keep people safe while also trying to keep our businesses going. That’s really tough.”

Dillard said she sent out an email instructing people to not bring firearms to the Reopen rally in Greensboro on Monday.

“It is illegal to have concealed carry or open carry at a protest,” she told TCB. “I wanted to make it very clear that this is not the time to demonstrate your Second Amendment rights.”

She said she’s coordinating the event with a Greensboro police detective.

“I’ve spoken to a detective about our vision for this event,” Dillard said. “I don’t want any fringe group involved in this. I don’t want any Nazis, antifa — either fringe.”

A loosely affiliated group of armed men inspired by “boogaloo” — an internet meme promoting a second civil war — has carried high-powered rifles around downtown Raleigh on three occasions this month. On one occasion, a black couple with small children reported they felt terrified by a man with the group who approached them with an over-sized wrench.

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