Blake Shelton’s voice rang out down the street as American-flag-clad men and women made their way to Governmental Plaza in downtown Greensboro on a misty Memorial Day morning.
“This is God’s country,” sang the country singer, who could be heard through a pair of speakers set up in front of the stage at the public forum site.
Close to 100 people — men, women and children of all ages — gathered in the plaza to celebrate Memorial Day and to protest the executive orders issued by Gov. Roy Cooper at an event organized by Reopen NC. A number of conservative and Republican speakers gave speeches at the rally including state Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Mark Robinson, 6th Congressional District candidate Lee Haywood and Fred Daniel, pastor at Brookhaven Baptist Church in Greensboro.
While Gov. Cooper’s latest executive order restricts gatherings of more than 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors, the order makes an exception for “activities constituting the exercise of First Amendment rights” as well as “worship, religious, and spiritual gatherings, funeral ceremonies, and wedding ceremonies.”
Most of the attendees, who arrived wearing a combination of stars and stripes and toted flags and signs with anti-abortion and anti-vaccine messages, did not wear masks or practice safe social-distancing. And despite the crowd’s apparent disregard for public-health requirements, speakers like Causey and Haywood took what appeared to be a more measured approach in their speeches.
Causey, who wore a disposable mask while shaking hands with several people at the event, started off by saying that he supports opening businesses to kickstart the state’s economy and that the early models of the virus’ trajectory by health departments were wrong.
“We are opening up and I think we needed to open up,” Causey said. “I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s more people worried about the economy and their livelihoods than they are the coronavirus…. Many of those models, as we all know now, were wrong,” to which one woman in the crowd shouted, “Fake news!”
However, shortly afterwards, Causey pivoted and seemed to urge attendees to practice “commonsense guidelines” without offering specifics.
“As responsible citizens, we must treat our fellow citizens with respect,” he said. “As we all know now, where it’s appropriate, wear a mask, gloves, social-distance and, of course, how many times have you heard wash your hands? But following commonsense guidelines will go a long way to keep us healthy…. I agree it’s a serious situation, and we must respect it for what it is. I urge all of you to be careful, use your common sense God gave you and make the best decisions for yourself and your family that will protect your health and your neighbor’s health.”
Since the onset of the pandemic, public health agencies across the world, including the CDC, have put out guidelines for keeping the virus from spreading including wearing a mask, washing hands frequently and keeping six feet apart from individuals.
Lee Haywood, the Republican nominee for the 6th Congressional District, who, like most of the speakers, chose not to wear a mask during the event, reiterated the need to reopen businesses but also urged attendees to respect health workers and to wear masks in local businesses if asked to do so.
“We also need to honor the healthcare workers that have stood at the front lines over the last couple of months and risked their lives,” Haywood said. “The next time you see these healthcare workers you need to thank them and ask them if there’s anything you can do to ease the pain in their life.”
A Journal of the American Medical Association study from late March of 1,257 healthcare workers in 34 Chinese hospitals that cared for coronavirus patients found that half reported suffering from depression and 44.6 percent suffered from anxiety. In recent weeks, nurses and other frontline healthcare workers across the country have taken to the streets as a form of counter-protest at rallies organized by Reopen NC. In late April in Raleigh, about a dozen healthcare workers were heckled by Reopen NC protesters, according to news reports by the News and Observer.
During the rally on Monday, there did not appear to be any counter-protesters.
On Facebook, Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan discouraged any from attending the event.
“I hope counter-protesters will stay away,” she wrote. “GPD will be on-site. It’s not a march…the governor’s last executive order allows for protests in Phase 2 (people expressing their First Amendment right). They are exempt from the mass gathering limit.”
One police officer on a bike rode around the perimeter of the plaza throughout the event. Although the officer told Triad City Beat that there was a squad of six or seven uniformed officers total patrolling the area, he was only one visible for the duration of the event.
Haywood continued his speech by urging attendees to honor businesses’ requests to wear a mask if asked to do so and to use elbow bumps as greetings. Still, after his speech, Haywood made the rounds at the rally, walking and talking to several individuals without a mask while greeting others with elbow bumps.
One of the most fervent advocates for reopening the state was Fred Daniel, a pastor at Brookhaven Baptist Church in Greensboro. During his speech, Daniel talked about his defiance against Cooper’s original order which prohibited churchgoers from congregating in person.
“I said I’m not going to do that,” he told attendees.
The governor’s most recent executive order also includes the exemption for “worship, religious and spiritual gatherings.”
The most well-received speaker at the event was Mark Robinson. The candidate for lieutenant governor said his speech was about one thing only: honoring the memory of those who died while serving the country. He lamented the fact that the annual holiday has become synonymous with sales and barbecues rather than a time of reflection and respect for the fallen. Still, towards the end of his speech, Robinson managed to infuse some of the same echoes of protest and disobedience that proved to be a theme throughout Monday’s rally.
“The British tried to stifle our freedom in 1776, it did not happen,” he said. “The Germans and the Japanese tried to steal our freedom and replace it with fascism in the 1940s, but it did not happen, and the communists and the socialists are trying to steal it today, but it will not happen.”
None of the speakers at the event mentioned Ashley Smith, the founder of the Reopen NC movement, or her husband, Adam Smith, who recently made headlines for stating that people should be “willing to kill” to resist the “New World Order” and governments’ emergency orders. First reported by Triad City Beat senior editor Jordan Green in Raw Story, Smith posted a string of Facebook Live video on May 22 that asked supporters whether they were willing to commit acts of violence to resist “tyrants.”
During the event on Monday, no attendees appeared to be carrying firearms but many echoed Smith’s sentiment of resistance and rebellion.
One woman, who waved a large “Trump 2020” flag, held a sign in her other hand that read, “America runs by it’s [sic] people and free enterprise not by socialism.” The back of one of her signs read “hypercapnia: excessive mask wearing.”
While the dozens of people that gathered in downtown for Reopen NC’s rally shouted support for relaxed restrictions and reopening of businesses, recent polls of North Carolina residents by High Point University and Meredith College found that respondents gave Cooper a 60 percent approval rating and support the governor’s handling of the pandemic. A Pew Research Center poll published May 7 found that 68 percent of Americans say their greater concern is that “state governments will lift coronavirus-related restrictions on public activity too quickly.”
On May 23, just one day after the state entered Phase 2 of reopening, more than 1,100 new cases were reported in the state — a jump from 758 that were reported on May 22.
On May 24, the number of lab-confirmed cases dropped to 497 but has since climbed back up to 742 as of today. The overall number of cases has steadily gone up for the last month, as has the number of individuals currently hospitalized.
In a text to TCB, Mayor Nancy Vaughan disparaged those who ignore health care professionals’ warnings about the spread of coronavirus.
“I think most people agree that business is reopening in a responsible manner and that social distancing, face coverings, and increased sanitization has had a positive impact on stopping the spread of COVID-19,” she wrote. “To see people ignoring warnings of healthcare professionals is irresponsible. To talk about the ultimate sacrifice of our service men and women on Memorial Day but to be unwilling to protect our healthcare workers or your fellow citizens by simply practicing social distancing or wearing a face covering during this pandemic in the name of freedom is simply selfish.”