As protesters demand “Reopen California!” here’s whom Newsom can’t afford to alienate

In Summary

Angry demonstrators, many unmasked, crammed toward the state Capitol demanding Gov. Gavin Newsom loosen or lift restrictions designed to contain the coronavirus pandemic. The bigger risk for Newsom: losing buy-in from local officials to make his edicts relevant up and down this diverse state.

Waving American flags and shouting against government tyranny, demonstrators demanding to “reopen California” have become the most visible rebellion against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order for residents to stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Hundreds packed the Capitol grounds in Sacramento today, leading to 32 arrests, while hundreds more gathered in Huntington Beach to protest Newsom’s order to close Orange County beaches

But they’re not likely to become the most problematic force the Democratic governor will contend with as he must decide, in the weeks and months ahead, how to gradually get the state up and running again. Thus far, polls show they represent a small, albeit noisy, minority of Californians. The bigger risk for Newsom is that he loses cooperation from local officials, whose buy-in is critical to make edicts from Sacramento relevant up and down the enormous state. Rural Modoc County allowed its churches and businesses to reopen today, in defiance of Newsom’s order. Orange County’s sheriff said he doesn’t plan to arrest beach-goers despite Newsom’s demand to shutter the shore. The health officer in Yuba and Sutter counties issued new orders that will allow gyms, nail salons, restaurants and shops to reopen on Monday.

“He is more likely to have issues with local governments in the next week or so if he doesn’t start considering some differences and letting them be heard,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political consultant who was an aide to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

“I think that’s much more of a prevalent issue than the protest at the Capitol.”

That protest — which began with a peaceful street-fair atmosphere as a sound system pumped “America the Beautiful” and Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” — drew an eclectic mix of Californians. The driver of a charter bus said his passengers had traveled from Los Angeles. Many demonstrators carried signs for the “State of Jefferson,” a secession movement based around the Oregon border. Some waved Trump signs, others were anti-vaccine activists and, and lots of people were angry that the shutdown has put them out of work.

Tom Lawson and his wife, Darcy, at the rally to re-open California at the Capitol. Photo by Ana Ibarra for CalMatters
Tom Lawson and his wife, Darcy, at the rally to re-open California at the Capitol. Photo by Ana Ibarra for CalMatters

“I was OK for the first couple of weeks but I want to go back and make some money,” said Tom Lawson, a 71-year-old from Stockton who owns a business repairing gas stoves and selling antiques. 

Erin, a 28-year-old who declined to give her last name, held a sign saying, “Poverty Kills.” A substitute teacher with two young children, she said she is unable to pay her May rent and doesn’t want to go on public assistance: “That goes against everything I believe. I believe in feeding my family with my own hands.”

Melinda Hollis, 65 from El Dorado Hills, said she was surprised by the size of the crowd. “Absolutely — this is giving me the chills,” she said. A photo organizer, she said she has been unable to work but won’t apply for assistance. “I refuse to be in debt over this,” she said — adding that she came out to serve as a role model for her grandchildren.

The protest took place without a permit. Few protestors wore masks and many police officers who lined the Capitol also were without them. The gathering had been under way for a couple hours before California Highway Patrol officers announced that the scene constituted a health hazard, told demonstrators to disperse, and began steering the crowd toward the sidewalk.

Near the front line where protesters were separated by as little as a foot from officers standing nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, one protester shouted at the uniformed officers: “If you don’t get back six feet, you’re proving the point — that it’s all a big hoax.” 

Another repeatedly called out: “If you’re listening, President Trump, we need you now.”

By that time, the lead row of officers was wearing N95 masks and face shields. But an hour earlier, several officers in the thick of the confrontation were wearing either no masks or masks insufficient to provide strong protection should any of the unmasked protesters be an asymptomatic coronavirus carrier.

“Our officers have all been issued N95 masks….but we leave it up to them as to whether to wear them,” said Lt. Jathan Castaneda, speaking on behalf of the CHP. Asked whether the CHP might require its officers to wear masks at such future demonstrations, he said “I think we’re all learning as we go what should be required in these fluid situations.”

He said he believed that the protesters who were arrested — for resisting or delaying a police officer, demonstrating without a permit and disobeying a lawful order — were all cited and released.

A woman struggled while being detained by police officers wearing masks and riot gear. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
A woman struggled while being detained by police officers wearing masks and riot gear. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Few if any elected officials were in the Capitol today; lawmakers went home in March as the state began its coronavirus shutdown, and the governor has been working primarily out of the state Office of Emergency Services several miles away. He told reporters he would defer to the CHP’s commissioner to determine officers’ on-the-scene response to the demonstrations.

Some supporters hope the “Reopen” protests taking place in many states will grow into an influential political movement, comparing them to the early days of the Tea Party — which  started off with noisy demonstrations but eventually grew to remake Congress.  

“As I was watching this movement… I started feeling deja vu,” Mark Meckler, a conservative activist and Tea Party founder, said on his podcast recently. He now works for a group called Convention of States, which urges amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget, according to the Washington Post, and is helping to foster the “Reopen” movement by connecting would-be participants.

Expressing concerns ranging from loss of income to fears of tyranny, protesters opposing the stay at home order demanded that Gov. Gavin Newsom re-open California. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Expressing concerns ranging from loss of income to fears of tyranny, protesters opposing the stay at home order demanded that Gov. Gavin Newsom re-open California. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

“This is how I got involved in starting the Tea Party movement 10 years ago,” he said on his podcast. “I was just frustrated by what I saw going on. I thought that public officials were out of control, that they weren’t being held accountable, that they weren’t listening to regular people.”

It seems unlikely that the anti-Newsom “Reopen California” protests will grow to anything very influential in a state as overwhelmingly blue as this one, where less than one-quarter of voters are registered Republican and the GOP hasn’t won a statewide office in 14 years. Recent polling shows Californian adults largely happy with how Newsom has handled the pandemic — 71% gave him high marks in a survey conducted by Northeastern, Harvard and Rutgers universities in the second half of April. Only 34% said the same about President Donald Trump.

Asked about the state government’s response, 78% of Californians said the state was “reacting about right.” Only 13% said the state was “overreacting.” And a mere 8% said that the country as a whole should end social distancing measures “immediately.” 

But the economic pain is widespread: 20% of surveyed Californians reported being laid off, with another 20% reporting pay cuts or reduced hours. 

Protesters carrying American flags and signs in front of the California Capitol are reflected in a fellow-protester’s sunglasses. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Protesters carrying American flags and signs in front of the California Capitol are reflected in a fellow-protester’s sunglasses. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Newsom frequently acknowledges the difficulty many Californians are experiencing, and today said he hopes to soon announce some easing of restrictions. 

“We’re all impatient and we’re deeply anxious and deeply desirous to start to turn the page,” he said during his daily media briefing.

But the governor consistently has said that the decision to reopen will be based on the state’s rate of infection as well as the ability to test for COVID-19, trace the contacts of sick people, and reconfigure businesses and schools to allow increased distancing. And, he’s said, no one should expect a full reopening any time soon — it will roll out gradually, in phases.

“I’m saying today with some optimism that we saw a decline in the number of hospitalizations,” Newsom said.

“We can screw all that up and we can set all that back by making bad decisions.”

This story has been revised to reflect the latest arrest numbers released by the CHP.

CalMatters staff writers Ana B. Ibarra and Ben Christopher contributed to this report.

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