By Dr. Joy Martinez, Staff Writer
Hundreds of protestors gathered outside the General Assembly Tuesday morning. Governor Roy Cooper and his legal team assured the residents of North Carolina that they would be allowed to protest his Executive Order to stay-at-home as long they adhered to social distancing guidelines.
This week’s protest began minutes after North Carolina announced the largest single-day increase of deaths due to COVID-19 to date.
In less than 30 days and with limited testing, the state has confirmed approximately 7,000 positive people and over 230 deaths. Fifty-six counties have reported deaths, with Mecklenburg reporting over 30.
Ashley Smith, co-founder of ReOpenNC, called the order unconstitutional, saying it was preventing people from pursuing their livelihoods. She called the governor’s orders “draconian” and wants to see the state reopen by May 1.
“Gov. Cooper, you are not a king and we are not your subjects,” Smith said. “Reopen North Carolina.”
Cooper has promised to ease restrictions under his stay-at-home order as soon as data shows that the worst of the pandemic has passed in North Carolina and when the state has the capacity to handle extensive testing and tracing the contacts of infected individuals so new outbreaks don’t surface.
The World Health Organization and other public health officials argue that the worst of the pandemic is still ahead.
“This is not the time to be lax. Instead, we need to ready ourselves for a new way of living for the foreseeable future,” said Dr. Takeshi Kasai, the WHO regional director for the Western Pacific.
In Indianapolis, protestor Andy Lyons said he understands the health risks. But he wants the government to back off.
“If I get sick, then I am going to bear the consequences of my getting sick,” Lyons said in a recent interview. “If anybody else gets sick, they bear the consequences of their free choice without government coercion to do so. That’s what this is about.”
North Carolina is not the only state with protestors. Despite the number of confirmed cases rising by 20,000 to 25,000 each day in the U.S., Michigan had one of the largest protests, where thousands of cars drove through the state capital.
A local protestor, Tom Hughey said, “I realize how important this virus is, but now we’re getting to the point where we’re shutting too much stuff down.” The Michigan Nurses Association responded to the protest by saying, “While everyone has a right to gather and express their opinions, today’s protest sends exactly the opposite message that nurses and healthcare professionals are trying to get across: we are begging people, please stay home.
“The protest was irresponsible, impeding ambulances and traffic… where frontline healthcare workers are risking their lives taking care of patients suffering from COVID-19. Lives are being saved because of the stay-home order. We ask everyone to protect themselves, their families and us by doing what’s best for the greater good.”
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer explained her desire to reopen the economy but her desire to protect the citizens she was elected to serve. “No one’s more anxious to re-engage our economy than I am. But I want to do it in a way that really does save life… That means that we can avoid a second wave. Because as tough as this is, it would be devastating to have a second wave.”
Trevor Noah mocked the protestors during a recent Comedy Central The Daily Social Distancing Show noting that some are not taking the numbers seriously. During his monologue he quipped, “Most of us have accepted that, as painful as it is, we need to stay at home a little longer until we can get those numbers under control. But it turns out there’s a different group of people around the country who are saying, “protester—how can we get those numbers to go up?””
Is it a constitutional right to put others at risk?
This virus doesn’t discriminate—it endangers people of all communities, all faiths, all ethnicities and social classes. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rights of states to protect the health and well-being of a population at stake. A plaintiff, Henning Jacobson, refused to get a smallpox vaccination although an epidemic was underway in his town of Cambridge. He argued that forcing him to receive it was “an invasion of his liberty.”
The high court, ruling 7–2, disagreed. The Supreme Court later affirmed this ruling in a San Antonio, Texas case. Since then, several federal and state courts have issued similar decisions specifically rejecting the idea that there is a right to expose others to harm or take away their rights.
There are also precedents that authorities must meet a burden of proof to justify a quarantine, and must provide the people with an explanation about why they are confined. Under section 361 of the Public Health Service Act, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services has the power to take measures to contain communicable diseases from foreign countries into the United States and between states. The CDC acts on behalf of the Secretary in these matters.
There are no easy answers.
The economic losses are widespread, while the deadly effects of the disease are targeted. It disproportionately kills the elderly and the poor, people who live and work in close quarters, who still take public transportation and minority populations that have long lacked adequate medical care that now leaves them more vulnerable.
In the face of numbers and a rate of infection that seems almost insurmountable, the great majority of North Carolinians are following the advice of scientists and the legislative lead of government officials who are urging restraint. They are committed to common sacrifice and mutual care, and they still believe we are better equipped to prevail together.
Stay safe and be well.
Photos By Delmas Cooper