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?”