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Demonstration in front of State House calls to end lockdown, reopen businesses

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  • Enid Mackenzie walks toward the protest to open up the state at City Plaza in downtown Concord on Saturday, April 18, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Mark Randall hands out pamphlets during the protest at City Plaza in front of the State House on Saturday, April 18, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A notice on the State House ground prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people on Saturday, April 18, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Above: Part of the hundreds of protesters on City Plaza on Saturday calling for the state to re-open in the midst of COVID-19 outbreak. GEOFF FORESTER Monitor staff

  • Protesters call for the state to re-open during a demonstration on Saturday, April 18, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A protestor who called himself 'Your Neighbor' holds up signs on City Plaza in front of the State House. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Mark Randall hands out pamphlets during the protest Saturday. GEOFF FORESTER Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/18/2020 4:46:37 PM

The protective masks were scarce, but the signs were everywhere.

Defying a ban on large gatherings, hundreds of people swarmed outside the State House plaza Saturday afternoon, packing the sidewalk along North Main Street in Concord to protest the continued shut down of “non-essential” businesses and restaurants in New Hampshire.

The argument was simple: The damage to the state’s economy will be more severe than the virus itself. As flags waved, demonstrators of all ages leaned in to listen to speeches echoing from a megaphone, huddled close amid frigid temperatures.

“End the lockdown,” read several signs.

“Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God,” another said.

“What happened to ‘Live Free Or Die’?” said another.

The crowd had amassed to protest a series of executive orders issued by Gov. Chris Sununu last month to shut down restaurants and businesses to foot traffic and fight back against a deadly virus with no cure.

But while health experts have encouraged that action – one most states in the country have taken – as a way to slow the spread of the virus by limiting contact, demonstrators Saturday pointed to severe economic effects such as business closures and job losses as evidence the state needed to change course.

Sylvia Smith drove down from Littleton to attend. To her, the relatively low case identification in the North Country meant the business shut down order should be reversed – at least for the more rural areas of the state.

“It’s just so crazy,” she said. “We have never acted like this in our country.”

Smith carried a sign pointing to past ailments the country had faced without shutdowns, like polio and tuberculosis – two crises she herself has lived through. But she also wore a mask, and was careful to stand six feet away from others, shifting her position as she was interviewed to maintain that distance.

Many others did not take those precautions. Throngs of people stood shoulder to shoulder on the curb to watch and listen. It appeared that fewer than 20% wore face coverings.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that Americans stay at home as much as possible, and wear masks and maintain six feet of distance from others when venturing out.

Other demonstrators kept their distance on the outskirts. And a parade of cars circled the State House plaza, blaring horns in support and brandishing American flags.

Occasionally, there were honks in opposition. “Go home, maggots,” shouted one person from their car.

The demonstration was dominated by participants on the political right, including several former and current Republican state representatives. And it accompanied an online petition to “Re-open NH” that has collected nearly 4,000 signatures.

For many, their frustration came down to individual liberties.

“This is a gross overstep of government. As far as I’m concerned, the governor doesn’t have the authority to unilaterally stroke a pen and destroy the economy of a state,” said Scott Sybert, from Deerfield. His sign read: “Sununu: The constitution is supposed to protect us from tyrants like you!”

Sybert and others said measures should have been taken early on to isolate seniors and vulnerable adults, while still letting the majority of the state go to work. Epidemiologists have rejected that approach, noting that the virus, which currently has no vaccine, spreads quickly and infects and kills younger adults as well.

At a press conference Friday, Sununu reiterated that the state’s restrictions would carry on for weeks if not months more, especially since the state’s rate of new cases has not slowed down. But he did say the state was open to a “hybrid” model that would allow some areas of the economy to re-open before others.

And on Saturday, the governor said he disagreed with the protesters, and urged patience.

“New Hampshire’s success at social distancing and mitigation efforts has led some to believe that COVID19 is no longer a serious threat, but we are unfortunately in the middle of a worldwide pandemic and only six weeks in,” Sununu said in a statement. “I would like to urge Granite Staters to be patient. I empathize with the sentiment behind today’s rally, but we must be responsible and patient in our actions. I have no doubt that our economy will come back at 100%, but we are being responsible and laying the groundwork with a phased approach that works for New Hampshire.”

Despite the anti-government thrust, the majority of demonstrators did not take aim at Sununu, a Republican, unlike similar demonstrations this week in states with Democratic governors. Many said they were cognizant of the reasons behind the governor’s orders, even if they disagreed with them.

One speaker at the bullhorn said she didn’t blame Sununu for his decision to order the shutdown, but said it was based on “faulty models, faulty testing, faulty deaths that are attributed to COVID-19” and should now be reversed.

Others said the governor was navigating a tough political reality, and that voters on the right, while frustrated now, would be unlikely to punish him in November.

“He was sort of damned if he did, damned if he didn’t,” said Ryan Williams, a Manchester resident and member of the New England Minutemen, a paramilitary organization that showed up with firearms.

Sybert was less sympathetic. A Sununu voter in the past, Sybert said he would not be casting a vote for the governor’s re-election.

“He’s trying to appeal to both sides,” Sybert said. “But there’s no negotiating liberty.”

Reopen guidelines

Sununu said Friday he agrees with the Trump administration’s guidelines for states to reopen their economies.

“The template the president presented yesterday is a good template, it’s a good backbone,” he said. “It’s very much along the same path that New Hampshire’s been going down already.”

On Thursday, the president detailed a three-step set of guidelines for easing restrictions over a span of several weeks in places that have robust testing and are seeing a decrease in COVID-19 cases. Sununu said New Hampshire is not even close to Phase 1.

“You really need about 14 days of better testing results,” he said.

The state has ramped up testing to an adequate capacity, he said, though “we always want more.”

“We will be increasing it,” he said.

Hundreds of thousands of masks delivered to N.H.

On Saturday, some 540,000 medical-grade face masks were delivered to New Hampshire as part of the deal made by inventor Dean Kamen that brought 91,000 pounds of personal protective equipment to the state last week.

Kamen, who lives in Bedford and invented the Segway, joined Sununu and Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun to announce the shipment. Boeing paid to transport the PPE on a company-owned corporate 737-700.

“Thanks to Dean Kamen for facilitating this deal, and to Boeing for donating the cost of this mission transport,” Sununu said. “The state will deliver these masks to the greatest areas of need across New Hampshire so those on the frontline have the necessary resources to fight COVID-19.”

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