“Defend your rights. Defend your freedoms. Every job is essential. Open this town!” These were some of the phrases chanted through a megaphone to passing cars at the corner of Caldwell and Mooney Boulevard In Visalia.
The protest took place on Friday, May 1st around noon. Nearly 300 people lined the sidewalk holding up Trump banners, American flags, Gadsden flags and homemade picket signs that read phrases like, “RE-OPEN VISALIA,” and “FREEDOM IS ESSENTIAL.” A constant river of cars honked in cacophonous support as they passed the demonstrators.
A handful of protesters wore masks and practiced social distancing. But those were the exceptions. Most protesters stood less than six feet apart and wore no face coverings as they called for the economy to re-open.
Organizer Ellen Woitalla called the event “MAGA MAYDAY” and stated she was part of larger “patriot groups” like the Visalian Republican Women Federated and the Tulare County Republican Assembly. She stressed, however, that the demonstration was more than just a partisan display.
“We want everybody to have equal opportunity to have their business open regardless of political affiliation,” Woitalla explained. “I’m out here for all the people that I care about in my community who are suffering under weight of not being open, not being considered essential, and being fined for doing what they have to do to put food on the table.”
People like Jessica Farmers, who owns a spa in the area, went to the protest to advocate for small business owners. Farmers stated she is worried about her family because she has been out of business going on nine weeks now.
“It’s a long time,” Farmers said. “And unemployment for self-employed people didn’t open up until April 28th…I feel like self-employed people have really suffered the most because there hasn’t been any relief. We got a little paycheck–the stimulus. But that runs out when you have a family of five to support.”
Jeffrey Winey was another protester at the event and owns a chain of furniture stores in the Valley. He has been forced to shut down his business and lay off 40 employees.
“It’s really devastating to them and their families,” Winey said. “We feel it’s time to open up. We’ve done our part. Citizens have lowered the curve, taken proper precautions. There’s no reason why our business can’t open if a place like Costco stays open or Lowe’s, because we never have that kind of number of people in our stores.”
Regardless of the economic reasoning, it was difficult to ignore the political messages displayed and expressed by the protesters. Many people wore Trump shirts, MAGA hats and flashed anti-Newsom signs.
State and Local Leadership Encourage Safety
The demonstration was only one of many throughout the state. According to the Fresno Bee, hundreds more gathered at the state capitol around the same time, an event that briefly turned violent with 32 protesters being detained.
Governor Gavin Newsom seems to be feeling the pressure from demonstrators and is planning to reopen businesses sooner than later. However, because protesters did not abide by safety measures laid out by the state to practice social distancing, permits for future events near state facilities may not be allowed.
CHP stated: “effective immediately the California Highway Patrol will deny any permit request for events or activities at all state facilities, to include the State Capitol, until public health officials have determined it is safe to gather again.”
Newsom also expressed his support of “participatory democracy” and “free speech,” but encouraged demonstrators to do it safely.
These events arrived only days after local leadership discussed progress being made in Tulare County, with the doubling rate of COVID-19 cases dropping from every 15 days to only every two-five days. Establishment of test collection sites has also made significant progress, according to Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) staff.
Director of Tulare County HHSA, Timothy Lutz, cited a Kaweah Delta model that showed the epidemic peaked in Tulare County last week. However, Lutz emphasized that was only one model and they can vary from place to place.
Lutz also mentioned that there has been an upward trend in “contact cases” involving “clusters with families.” In other words, more people have been contracting the virus likely through weekend family gatherings.
As it stands, there are 680 COVID-19 confirmed cases in Tulare County. No new deaths have been reported. But protests that don’t practice proper social distancing may qualify as clusters that could threaten progress made in Tulare County.
Visalia District Supervisor Amy Shuklian encouraged community members to remain mindful and stay safe as state mandates are loosened and local businesses begin to re-open.