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What It Was Like Friday At The Crowded Huntington Beach Demonstration

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On Friday in Huntington Beach, demonstrators rallied against the coronavirus precautions, including the state-ordered closure of local beaches.

Sharon McNary covered the event for us and talked to our newsroom's All Things Considered host Nick Roman about what she saw.

Sharon started the conversation by noting it was the first time she'd attended a news event in person since early March. A veteran of fire coverage (and making homemade fabric masks), she wore one her N-95 masks to be, as she said "safe-ish."

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Here's what she had to say:

Set the scene for us, what did you see and who was there?

This section of Huntington Beach, on Main Street near the pier, has been the site of several demonstrations by mostly conservative, overwhelmingly white crowds calling for the coronavirus precautions to be lifted.

Today was the largest of those, with more than a thousand demonstrators crowding together - so many, that police on horseback were stationed to keep them up on the curb on the beach side of the street. It was loud, only about half the people wore face covers, and there was little concern for keeping physical distance between people.

A man at a protest in Huntington Beach holds a sign reading "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." (Sharon McNary/LAist)

Was it an open-the-beach rally or an open-the-economy rally?

There was a good amount of pro-Trump rally and a lot of anti-Gov. Gavin Newsom signs, but mostly it was about lifting the stay at home orders

People there want to get back to work.

Demonstrators cross the street near the Huntington Beach pier May 1, 2020 (Sharon McNary/LAist)
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But aren't people afraid of getting the coronavirus if restrictions are lifted?

The people I spoke to do not think they were taking a big risk. They were mainly upset about not being able to do normal things. Like Luke Czaplinski who told me:

"Well, we haven't been able to go out and hang out with friends. It seems like all of my neighbors don't want to hang out or anything like that."

But he's also annoyed at the media and at a medical establishment that is scaring people with these large numbers of COVID-19 deaths. He disputes that COVID-19 is the main reason they died.

"Well, because I believe that a lot of people had pre preexisting conditions," he said "that they would have died anyway. And this was a little bit a sprinkle of some kind of a sickness that maybe helped them die faster. But a lot of people that were going to die anyway ended up dying."

And I heard a lot of that sort of thing today. People are still comparing the deaths from COVID-19 with the death toll from a bad flu year. So some science denial going on here.

Luke Czaplinski and friend at the Huntington Beach demonstration against the closing of beaches in California. (Sharon McNary/LAist)

Were these just local people?

No. I talked to people who came long distances to be here. Like that fellow, Luke, brought his family from Corona in the I.E. And one woman I talked to came from Santa Clarita.

What kinds of things were they saying?

One woman -- I actually had to step away from her -- runs a local hair salon and she was insisting on handing out her business cards to people in the media so we would interview her about her shuttered business. And I told her I was not taking anything handed to me by anyone. I tried to get away from her, and in fact it was hard to keep distance, it was so crowded.

Were there at least some people annoyed at the beach being closed?

The beach is symbolic of a larger issue of personal freedom, government overreach, denial of science and media reports.

There were a good amount of locals there, many of them on their cruiser bikes, whose day off would usually revolve around going to the beach and hanging out, so I don't want to discount that. But forthe clear majority of people, the issue did not appear to be beach culture; it was very much a political demonstration aimed against the coronavirus shutdowns.

Crowds of people protest the decision to close beaches at Huntington Beach in Orange County. (Sharon McNary/LAist)

What happens next in this saga?

The beach cities that want to open up their beaches - Huntington, Newport and Dana Point - say they will pursue legal avenues to protect what they say is a violation of their constitutional right to keep their beaches open.

I'll be watching the coronavirus case counts in Orange County to see if there's any kind of a spike in the numbers after this exercise in not physically distancing.

Here's a look at cases and deaths so far in Orange County via the JSK Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University and the Big Local News group, in partnership with the Google News Initiative.

You can explore other counties, states and the U.S. on the whole at COVID-19 Case Mapper.