AUGUSTA — Car horns honked and signs were waved Monday as about 300 people protested in Augusta, descrying Gov. Janet Mills’ order to stay safe at home and other restrictions related to stemming the spread of the coronavirus.

The protest, which took place along on the sidewalks between the State House and the Blaine House, mimicked other events that have taken place around the country.

An estimated 300 people gathered, and many more drove by in vehicles with horns blaring and some hoisting American flags or flags for the reelection President Trump.

Some of those in attendance wore masks, but most did not maintain the 6-foot social distancing recommendations made by health professionals, as they waved signs saying it is time to “reopen” Maine businesses and operations that have been shut down to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Protesters assemble Monday outside the Blaine House in Augusta. An estimated 300 people gathered outside the Blaine House, which is the governor’s mansion, and outside the State House across the street, to call for coronavirus restrictions to be lifted. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Protesters were often seen crowding together, elbow-to-elbow, as the event culminated in barely audible speeches along the steps at the side of the State House.

“I think what we’ve got is a huge overreach” by primarily state government, said protester Carl Brando, a self-employed contractor from Eddington, who said he is not working now because people are scared to have anyone around them amid the coronavirus.

Brando said kids should be allowed back in school, and businesses — closed because of the virus and government mandates in response to it — should be allowed to reopen.

“Most of us are responsible adults that don’t need to be lead around by the nose,” Brando said.

 

James Paine of Waterville said he was there to exercise his First Amendment right to free speech, so that he hopefully would not have to use his Second Amendment rights, the right to keep and bear arms.

He said the regular flu comes through every year and causes deaths, but only the coronavirus has gotten attention. Health experts point out that the coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 illness, is much more deadly and easily transmittable than the flu or other viruses.

Paine speculated the fear spread about the coronavirus is part of a politically motivated plan to crash the economy.

Earlier, on a portable loudspeaker on the sidewalk outside the Blaine House, Paine yelled, “Open Maine for business” and “give me liberty or give me death.”

Nearby, another man yelled: “I need a haircut. Let my barber open.” His words were in reference to barbers not being considered an essential service allowed to remain open in Maine during the pandemic.

The raucous protest went on for more than an hour. Protester Kit McCall of Hermon, who wore a protective mask at the event, said he was “not at all” concerned he could be exposed to the coronavirus at the event, because he and others would take precautions. He said he is concerned small businesses are being unfairly affected by the state’s rules, while larger businesses, like Walmart, sell some of the same items and are allowed to remain open.

Protesters assemble Monday outside the State House Augusta, where hundreds of people gathered to call for coronavirus restrictions to be lifted. The governor’s mansion, called the Blaine House, is seen in the background. Staff photo by Andy Molloy

Russell Gauvin, chief of Capitol Police, said there appeared to be about 300 people on foot at the protest, and another several dozen protesters in cars who drove back and forth through the intersection of State and Capitol streets.

Traffic appeared to back up in multiple directions from the State House area, including on Capitol Street and as far back as the Buker Community Center.

Gauvin said there were no arrests, citations or problems with the protest. He acknowledged that while some people tried to maintain safe social distances, others were crowded together on the sidewalk, including protesters and members of the news media there to cover the event.

Gauvin said it would not have been productive for police to step in to try to enforce social distancing guidelines at such an event, and that Capitol Police are generally hesitant to get involved when protesters are speaking out on issues.

“When it comes to a civil disobedience kind of thing, you’ve got to weigh the consequences,” Gauvin said. “And under those circumstances, I’m not sure we’d gain anything” by getting involved.

Gauvin added that police taking action to speak with protesters about social distancing could have caused a crowd to gather together, the opposite of what social distancing guidelines are meant to accomplish.

“Going in,” Gauvin said, “we didn’t intend to do anything unless there was violence or anything like that. And people were great, as far as that goes.”

Last Friday afternoon, an anonymous news release was sent out by groups calling themselves ReOpen Maine or Mainers Against Excessive Quarantine, indicating they would be protesting at noon Monday. The news release echoed the same talking points heard in other states where similar protests have been held.

“Government mandating sick people to stay home is called quarantine,” the anonymous release reads. “However, the government mandating healthy citizens to stay home, forcing businesses and churches to close is called tyranny. Business owners are being forced to layoff employees while the unemployment system is failing those laid off as the economy free falls. This is a recipe for disaster with many in our society helpless.”

A protester with a sign takes photos Monday outside the State House Augusta, where hundreds of people gathered to call for coronavirus restrictions to be lifted. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

The news release called for Maine’s economy to be “reopened” May 1, and that people “with compromised immune systems should not have to re-enter the economy or workforce if they do not feel comfortable.”

Mills has extended her state of civil emergency proclamation until May 15, which would allow her to lengthen the stay-at-home order and other actions she has taken by executive order.

Mills said Friday her administration “has been connecting with individual economic sectors across the state to devise a plan for how we gradually reopen the Maine economy,” but the governor provided no details about the timing of the reopening or how it would be carried out.

Mills has also said she has been working informally with officials in New Hampshire and Vermont on regional planning toward reopening the states’ economies.

Maine’s protest follows similar displays in other states, and Trump has increasingly pressured states to ease restrictions, even as experts warn doing so too quickly could make the spread of the coronavirus worse.

Some of the protests have been small events, promoted via Facebook groups that have popped up in recent days and whose organizers are sometimes difficult to identify.

Others have been backed by groups funded by prominent Republican donors. A recent story in The Washington Post reported that far-right, pro-gun activists are behind some of the largest Facebook groups encouraging anti-quarantine protests around the country.

State Rep. Sherm Hutchins, R-Penobscot, grins Monday outside the State House Augusta, where hundreds of protesters gathered to call for coronavirus restrictions to be lifted. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

While the news release about the protest effort did not include any names, an Aroostook County state representative said he was organizing it. Rep. Chris Johansen, R-Monticello, said Friday he wanted Mills to ease some of the restrictions she placed on businesses deemed nonessential that have been forced to close, especially in rural Maine where he said the risk of the virus is lower.

Johansen said at the protest, “This is Maine, not New York,” and “We need to reopen.”

And at least one prominent conservative political voice called for the state economy to “reopen,” but did not attend the rally. That was the choice of Adrienne Bennett, a Republican candidate for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, who, instead of attending the protest, put a call out on Twitter for her supporters to create homemade protest signs and post the restrictions on social media.

“I have made the decision to participate in the protests virtually, using the megaphone of social media to call on Governor Mills to do her job and develop a plan to safely reopen Maine,” Bennett said in a statement.

Eric Brakey, a Republican candidate for the 2nd Congressional District, lives-streams himself Monday at outside the State House Augusta, where hundreds of protesters gathered to call for coronavirus restrictions to be lifted. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Bennett’s primary opponent, Republican Eric Brakey, was at the protest and was among a handful of people who addressed the crowd in an inaudible speeches on steps outside the State House.

Brakey could later be seen holding out his cellphone and livestreaming himself talking with the protest in the background.

Signs at the protest included those that read: “One size does not fit all,” “Don’t tread on Me,” “Freedom to choose,” “Jesus Saves,” “Give me liberty or give me Covid-19” and “Open Me before there is nothing left to open.”

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