Protests Mark Growing Unrest with California Stay-at-Home Order

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Hundreds of people gather to protest the stay-at-home orders outside the state capitol building in Sacramento, California on May 1, 2020. Some people intentionally jammed roads while honking and holding out signs while others disrespected social distancing rules by gathering in close proximity, causing police to form skirmish lines to push back protesters. (Josh Edelson/Getty Images)

Californians weary of stay-at-home orders that have left millions unemployed staged displays of defiance Friday, with hundreds of flag-waving protesters gathering in Sacramento.

Meanwhile, Modoc County has begun allowing diners back in restaurants and reopened other businesses.

While much of the state’s population remained at home to deter the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Gavin Newsom acknowledged the building anxiety while repeatedly teasing the possibility the state could begin relaxing some aspects of the restrictions next week.

“We are all impatient,” the governor said during his daily briefing, adding, “We have to be really deliberative on how we reopen this economy.”

Newsom noted the state just passed the grim marks of 50,000 confirmed infections and 2,000 deaths, but that hospitalization statistics are heading in a better direction and that has him hopeful.

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“We can screw all that up. We can set all that back by making bad decisions,” he said. “All of that works because people have done an incredible job in their physical distancing.”

In Sacramento, as police lined steps outside the Capitol, protesters waved signs that said “Defend Freedom” and broke into “U-S-A” chants, most eschewing face masks. A small plane circled overhead, displaying a banner carrying an image of Newsom’s face and the slogan, “End his tyranny.”

Brad Mills from Clovis, in Fresno County, said the lockdown is doing more damage. “I’m not of the opinion that COVID-19 is a hoax, that it’s not real. I think that it’s a legitimate threat. But not every county needs to be treated the same.”

Chrissy Helmer, who owns a small retail store in Vacaville said it's time for people to get back to work. "Everyone is struggling. We have payroll to pay. We have rent to pay. We haven't seen any government assistance."

Sindy Harris, who lives in Benicia said the state should be focused on loosening restrictions, not tightening them. "My husband and I were scolded by my city for picking up trash on a road that was filthy. And yet people can go to Walmart and Target, and every place else and stand with a cart together?"

There were about a dozen organized rallies in cities including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.

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Modoc County — near the Oregon border and home to about 9,000 people, became the first to defy the state’s shutdown orders.

The county is “moving forward with our reopening plan,” said Heather Hadwick, the county’s deputy director of emergency services, who added that the county has no reported COVID-19 cases.

Hadwick said the county had not heard from the governor about its reopening plan, but she asserted it aligns with Newsom’s indicators for reopening. Schools were not opening Friday, but it was an option for districts that can accommodate preventative measures, she said.

“We are utilizing his guidance of those plans, and we have zero cases,” she wrote. “Our residents were moving forward with or without us. We really needed to create guidelines for them so that they could do this in the safest way possible.”

At Country Hearth Restaurant and Bakery in the small town of Cedarville, three customers came in for breakfast, general manager Janet Irene said. She said her regular customers had been very cooperative with orders that had allowed her to only serve takeout since March.

“Since we’re a sit-down restaurant, people were constantly asking to be able to sit in the restaurant, and it was really, really difficult during this time to deny that,” she said.

The county had notified Newsom of its plans and never heard back from him. His office did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Elsewhere, a variety of businesses from restaurants to hairstylists in rural and more populated areas have opened their doors in individual acts of defiance.

The moves underscore Newsom’s challenge as the state enters its seventh week under stay-at-home orders, with only businesses deemed essential allowed to operate. Gyms, bars, shopping malls, restaurant dining rooms and sports arenas all remain shuttered.

Newsom hinted that change was coming soon. He has previously outlined a phased approach in which the economy would gradually return to normal.

But at the same time he warned of troubling signs, including a lack of testing in rural areas that might be concealing a lurking threat from the virus. He recognized the right of residents to protest, saying he welcomed diverse viewpoints, but also warned that crowding posed a health threat.

Newsom also confirmed the obvious: With its once-roaring economy in shackles and millions jobless, the state will face a funding shortfall that will run into billions of dollars.

“Billions in surplus, in just weeks, tens of billions of deficit,” he said.

Police across the state appear to have taken a largely hands-off approach with protesters, despite the fact they were violating stay-at-home requirements and not following physical distancing recommendations. The fear is the virus can be spread in close quarters by people who don’t known they’ve contracted it.

Associated Press reporters Amy Taxin in Huntington Beach, Kathleen Ronayne and Cuneyt Dil in Sacramento, John Antczak and Stephanie Dazio in Los Angeles, Olga R. Rodriguez, Janie Har and Juliet Williams in San Francisco contributed reporting. KQED's Katie Orr contributed to this report.