Lockdown showdowns are brewing in California
Governments, business owners, and protesters tussle over when to open again
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Gavin Louis Uridel is not a “protesty kind of guy.” He’s not an activist perpetually enraged over broken systems and broken people. He’s a pretty happy guy—a jacked-up fitness enthusiast with shoulder-length blond dreadlocks, beach-kissed skin, and vein-popping thighs. He quit his job as a lawyer to open a gym next to the Pacific waters after professing faith in Jesus Christ.
For the first time in his life, Uridel joined a protest rally on May 1 in San Diego. Granted, his sign read, “I thought there would be free donuts,” and his gear was a creepy face mask from the horror film The Purge. Despite the humor, Uridel was dead serious when he walked with hundreds of other protesters in downtown San Diego and shouted about the state’s COVID-19 restrictions. There he met other owners of small businesses—restaurants, hair salons, barber shops, flower shops, and nail salons. They looked at each other and said, “You too? We can’t work, we can’t make money. This is stupid.”
For the first time since Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide shelter-in-place order on March 19, Uridel felt like his voice mattered: “It felt great, it felt liberating, that I’m not alone. You know, you feel so alone and isolated sitting at home, wondering when they’ll let you out.”
Elsewhere in California—Los Angeles, Huntington Beach, San Francisco, and Sacramento—thousands more people gathered to demand the state fully reopen. Some stayed in their American flag-adorned cars honking. Planes circled above flapping banners (one had Newsom’s face next to the words “End His Tyranny”) while most people thronged the sidewalks chanting “USA! USA!” and “Freedom! Freedom!” The majority did not practice social distancing or wear face coverings. In Sacramento, the California Highway Patrol arrested 32 protesters and cited them for violating a public health order, further angering protesters who say the state is infringing upon their constitutional rights.
These are trying times for everybody. An April poll among Californians showed that more than three-fourths are worried about themselves or someone in their family getting sick from the coronavirus. But about an equal number of Californians also said they’re worried about the pandemic’s effect on their personal finances. The tension becomes more apparent as government officials gauge when to lift lockdown orders, business owners contemplate how long they can afford to stay closed, and protesters show the world how angry they are.
GOVERNMENT LEADERS FACE DUELING PRESSURES from two sides: On one, many Californians are frustrated and angry that their governor is extending the economic shutdown without a definite end date, even as unemployment numbers continue to soar above 20 percent. They say their constitutional rights and livelihoods are at stake. California has basically flattened the coronavirus curve—so why continue such strict restrictions?
On the other side, many healthcare workers and public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci warn that reopening too quickly will cause even more infections, deaths and economic hardship. About 2,800 Californians and more than 84,000 Americans have died due to COVID-19, and the death rate in California has not declined in the past month. Though the state has significantly increased its capacity for coronavirus testing, it’s still about 20,000 shy of its goal to test more than 61,000 people per day. Meanwhile, serologic testing suggests that the majority of the population is still at risk of infection, and a second wave of lockdowns would damage the economy even more.
So far, Newsom has tilted toward the more precautionary side. In late April, he unveiled a four-phase plan to reopen California while warning that he would quickly reinstate restrictions if coronavirus cases tick back up. He gave no specific dates for when the state will enter each phase. Some businesses, such as florists, bookstores, and some office spaces, can open but under strict rules: Retail shops can only do curbside pickup, every business must implement social distancing rules, and most restaurants still cannot allow dine-in services. “Science, not politics, must be the guide,” Newsom has repeated. “The virus has not gone away.”
Newsom’s plan irritated leaders of smaller, rural counties who say they have not seen as many cases and should be able to reopen faster than the rest of the state. Two counties, El Dorado and Butte, on May 12 began an accelerated path through Newsom’s phased plan, and more than a dozen other counties are also on track to reopen more businesses. To do so, Newsom set various benchmarks, including no COVID-19-related deaths for two weeks and only one new case per 10,000 for two weeks. Those two criteria will be impossible for higher-density counties such as San Diego and Orange to meet.
Several Southern California counties are discussing a joint effort to persuade Newsom to revise his benchmarks, while some smaller counties have already defied the governor’s orders by reopening shopping malls, gyms, salons, dine-in restaurants, and tattoo parlors. Only Los Angeles County (which has about half of the entire state’s confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths) has decided to move much slower than the governor: County officials say the shutdowns will continue indefinitely.
MEANWHILE, SOME CITIZENS lost patience waiting for permission to return to work. Jacob Lewis, owner of The Gym in San Bernardino County, was one of the first businesses in California to reopen against orders, risking public umbrage and legal repercussions. Lewis opened his 24/7 gym at 6 a.m. on May 1, receiving a torrent of both support and criticism from people across the country. When I called him several days later, I heard the phone in his gym ring every three minutes with calls from gym members, random strangers, and other business owners seeking advice.
Lewis decided to reopen his gym after members told him they’re struggling with depression, addiction, and other mental health issues during the shutdown: “I’m not an emotional guy at all, and it brought tears to my eyes. I realized now after this whole situation how much gyms are more mental health than they are physical health.” He wants to know if the Costco next door can open while taking certain precautions because it’s deemed “essential,” why can’t gyms?
Lewis said he’s following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines: He shut off every other piece of cardio equipment so people can maintain at least 6 feet of distance; he requires members wipe down equipment after each use; and he shut down showers, steam rooms, and group classes. Though some outraged members have canceled memberships, Lewis isn’t worried about long-term business consequences to his decision: “Unfortunately, this is the first time in my life when I’m not looking at this as a business move … I’m laying it all out for the people who trusted in me to give them a service—that’s it.”
His action inspired other business owners to do the same. One of them is Uridel, who was at the San Diego protest. He decided to open his MetroFlex Gym in Oceanside on May 8. More than half his gym members are active-duty service members or veterans, and many suffer from PTSD. Some are former addicts. For them, the gym is therapy, an outlet to release stress and anxiety. Uridel said he struggled with his conscience: “Should I risk a citation, or risk someone killing themselves?”
ECONOMIC OR SOCIAL NEEDS aren’t the only reasons business owners are violating lockdown orders, or why thousands are turning out in protest rallies across the nation from North Carolina to Michigan. Lewis, for example, said he’d always been skeptical of the severity of COVID-19, especially the mainstream media’s reports on it. He doubts death toll projections and says “there’s something else going on.” Later, he recommended I look up the popular “Plandemic” video, which Facebook and YouTube removed from their platform because of its unverified claims about the pandemic.
I saw that distrust of authorities and the media at a May 9 protest rally in Huntington Beach. Hundreds of protesters gathered on the sidewalks across the pier waving American flags and wearing red, white, and blue outfits. Cars honked, protesters chanted “USA! USA!” and passersby whooped and cheered them on. It was a hot, sunny afternoon—perfect beach weather—and though the protest organizers encouraged participants to social distance, most stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their children and dogs. I counted only about six people wearing masks.
At least one-third wore Trump 2020 gear, making the event look more like a political rally. Some protesters were anti-vaccine moms and people touting popular conspiracy theories. Their signs and the chants voiced multiple opinions: “Vote Dems Out!” “Jobs, not crumbs!” “Freedom is Essential!” “Lock up Fauci, Gates, and Birx!” “Jesus Loves You.” “Open Our Bars!” “Dictator Newsom: Let My People Go!” “No vaccines! No contact tracing!”
Rally organizers worried the news media would take some voices out of context. They encouraged participants to stick to messages about job loss and constitutional rights, but the conglomerate of messages makes this movement far more complex and layered than just a cry for the state to reopen.
Katie Scott, a stay-at-home mother of four who joined the protest in San Diego on May 1, said she worried that people will view protesters as selfish, entitled Americans demanding a right to do whatever they want: “There’s a fine line between, ‘Let’s do our part to keep people safe,’ and the government invading our rights.”
Her family took Newsom’s initial stay-at-home orders seriously. She left her kids at home when she went to grocery stores and wore a mask. But as the shutdown lengthened, and as she began reading data indicating more people were asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus and mortality rates may be lower than original projections, Scott wondered if the long-term consequences were worth it. She began suspecting something more was at play: “Now it’s depriving people of their livelihood. Now you’ll have people killing themselves because they have no hope. Now it’s just plain politics, and we’re just being taken advantage of.”
Her family and friends are losing jobs, businesses, and homes. Scott’s husband works in medical sales. Because of the sharp dip in elective surgeries to make way for COVID-19 patients, he’s now driving an Amazon delivery truck to make ends meet. For most Californians, the one-time stimulus check from the federal government is barely enough to cover rent for a studio apartment. Scott hosts an Airbnb, but guests canceled through July. She has used the Airbnb space to house victims of domestic violence instead, now that spousal and child abuse has spiked under pandemic conditions. Yet the Scotts still have to pay two mortgages. The bank allowed them to suspend their mortgage payments for six months, but they have to pay everything that’s due all at once—impossible for out-of-work families.
Even if the country lifts all restrictions right now, many businesses, particularly mom-and-pop shops, will never reopen. Even big-name brands such as Gold’s Gym, J.C. Penney, Sur La Table, J. Crew, and Neiman Marcus are filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The American Hospital Association estimates hospitals are hemorrhaging more than a billion dollars per day due to the lack of non-coronavirus patients and more spending on COVID-19 treatment and personal protective equipment. That means some hospitals will close, and more workers will lose their jobs.
That’s why people like Uridel, the owner of MetroFlex Gym in Oceanside, decided to reopen. When I first talked to Uridel, it was the second day of his reopening, and he was feeling “nervous, excited, exhilarated, and determined to do whatever it takes” to keep his doors open. The day before, a couple of police officers had parked outside his gym. Uridel breathed a sigh of relief when they left after 15 minutes. But he knew it wasn’t over: “If you’re getting into a fight, you should expect to get punched a few times. I’m just expecting those punches, you know?”
That punch came a week later on May 10, when Oceanside police arrested Uridel and cited him for reopening his gym. He now faces two $1,000 fines and a possible six-month sentence in the county jail. He said the police also threatened to arrest and cite every customer in the gym if he kept the gym open. Though frustrated, Uridel told me he’s not backing down: “I’m not afraid. The worst thing to do is just sit by and do nothing and lose everything. If I lose everything by doing something, I’m not worried about it.”
So people react when politicians wag fingers and scold those who say they can’t bear the shutdown any longer. That’s when people like Scott pick up signs that read “Is this the USA or United States of China?” Her kids’ signs said, “My dad’s job is essential to me.”
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