Who Are the Californians Wanting to Open up the State?

Jenn Thomas, a hair stylist who is out of work and hurting financially, is part of a growing segment of Californians who are frustrated, anxious and confused with the state’s current shelter-in-place order. (Courtesy Jenn Thomas)

Things were looking up for Jenn Thomas. In September, she bought her first home in Citrus Heights, which is a part of Sacramento County. And for a while, her hair salon was getting lots of clients and making “pretty good money.”

Then, a month ago today, county officials ordered all non-essential businesses to close in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This included Thomas’ business.

As a single mother with two young children, Thomas says that not being able to cut hair has put her in a tough financial position. Cash is running out to make her mortgage payments and she can’t afford to put her children into day care to then look for work.

“I don’t want to lose my house,” Thomas, 40, said. “It scares me to death. My livelihood is in dire straits. When is this going to end?”

Thomas joins a growing segment of Californians who are frustrated, anxious and confused with the state’s current shelter-in-place order. Some want to know just how much longer they won’t be able to work. Others question the seriousness of the COVID-19 virus.

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In response to her growing fears, Thomas says she’ll be participating in a protest tomorrow at the state’s capitol, where hundreds are expected to show up — while promising to stay put in their cars — demanding that officials reopen the state’s businesses. Thomas also helps run a Facebook group called “Californians Against Excessive Quarantine,” which has over 5,000 members.

The Sacramento event coincides with a much larger debate occurring across the country. Last Wednesday, in Lansing, Michigan, thousands of protestors carrying Trump flags, and in some cases, firearms, rallied against the state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, whose most recent shelter-in-place orderis one of the most restrictive in the country.

At the same time, President Trump has provided tacit support for these protests in a series of tweets on Friday when the president posted “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” as well as Michigan and Virginia.

People take part in a protest for 'Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine' at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, on April 15, 2020. (Jeff Kowalsky/Getty Images)

While protesters with the most extreme views have been sucking up the media attention nationwide, a series of interviews with Californians critical of the restrictions shows that some in this movement carry a more nuanced view. All of the people KQED spoke to believed the threat of the coronavirus is real. Some of the people didn’t take issue with the initial order to shelter in place.

But with the restrictions easing the burden on the health care system, they are skeptical as to whether California should remain in complete shutdown.

In the interviews, one point of doubt comes from the comparison of deaths from the flu, heart disease and cancer. Are they any deadlier than the new virus?

From a numbers standpoint, cancer and heart disease together kills close to 1 million U.S. adults per year, making the country’s coronavirus deaths, a little over 40,000, so far, look small.

But it’s the uncertainty of COVID-19, experts say, that makes these comparisons not exactly appropriate. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, addressed this in a January press conference, saying that the year-to-year deaths from the flu, for example, can be predicted, whereas calculations for COVID-19 deaths are harder to determine.

And COVID-19 has already killed more people than the U.S. 2018-19 flu season.

But Thomas and others say that with the health care systems stabilized, more weight needs to be given to the economic hardship and desperation a complete shutdown is creating.

“We can’t just continue to keep closing things up and disrupting people’s lives where [COVID-19] is not affecting people like myself physically,” said Thomas.

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Thomas rents a small, 139-square-foot office space for her salon, and she is the only employee. She said that if she were to reopen, she would be happy to wear personal protective equipment while cutting hair.

Which leads to the next question: Health experts said hospitals would be overloaded with COVID-19 patients. Has this actually happened in California?

Manav Dutta, who also helps run “Californians Against Excessive Quarantine,” was taking precautions in response to the growing coronavirus threat. He maintained social distance and washed his hands regularly. But on March 19, the governor enacted a shelter-in-place order. Then, municipalities across the state started shutting down parks and beaches. And like Thomas, Dutta is concerned that these measures don’t take into account the need for people to make money.

Dutta, a software engineer at the Georgia-based Movius, said that fears over the country’s health care system being overrun are “unfounded.”

He’s partially right. As the COVID-19 threat started to grow in March, hospitals started canceling elective surgeries to free up beds for a potential surge. That left UCSF Medical Center with hundreds of unused beds not filled by coronavirus patients.

In addition, the Navy hospital ship docked in Los Angeles may scale back its operations since hospitals in the region are stable.

But that doesn’t mean a surge won’t still happen.

At a press conference in the beginning of April, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state should expect to see a hospital surge in mid-May. And a recent study by the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and Kaiser Permanente found that COVID-19 patients who stay in the hospital for the long term could overwhelm the state’s health care infrastructure, especially if shelter-in-place orders are prematurely lifted.

Dutta hopes that if there are to be more protests in California, it is done in a “cordial” manner and without the more “concerning” elements of the Michigan protest, like people getting out of their cars.

At a press conference yesterday about homelessness and COVID-19, Newsom said that if people are to protest the shelter-in-place order, they should do so “safely” and make sure they’re “not infecting others,” since the virus has “doesn’t know political ideologies.”

But Newsom also provided a staunch warning about the state of COVID-19 in California, and the fact that 87 people had died the night before from the virus, the highest the state has seen since the pandemic started.

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“Those who think we’re out of the woods,” he said, “I caution you on the basis of that 87 number.”