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Police temporarily bar entry to Capitol Square amid 'Reopen Virginia' protest

Photo courtesy: Henry Graff | NBC12
Photo courtesy: Henry Graff | NBC12(WHSV)
Published: Apr. 16, 2020 at 12:06 PM EDT
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UPDATE (1 p.m.):

As protesters gathered at Virginia's Capitol Square, outside the General Assembly building in Richmond, police shut down entry into the square on Thursday afternoon.

Dozens of people organized by ReOpen Virginia, End The Lockdown VA and Virginians Against Excessive Quarantine showed up in the state's capital to call for Governor Ralph Northam to "reopen Virginia."

They oppose any restrictions continuing beyond May 1. On Wednesday, Gov. Northam announced that Executive Order 53, which closed many non-essential businesses and banned gatherings of more than 10 people, was being extended until at least May 8.

That's because Virginia isn't projected to hit its peak of COVID-19 cases, according to state-specific modeling by UVA Health, until late April or early May. Those sames models show that lifting restrictions too early would result in a surge of new cases that could potentially put hospitals in parts of Virginia beyond their surge capacity.

According to the Department of General Services, which was working with Capitol Police on Thursday, officers temporarily prohibited entry to Capitol Square as the event went on.

They say that was to disrupt the event, which was held without a permit and posed a potential risk to the public amid the ongoing pandemic.

The department acknowledged the groups' protest of Executive Order 53 and Executive Order 55, which directs Virginians to stay at home through June 10, except for essential reasons.

According to the department, the groups present in Richmond on Thursday actively encouraged rally participants to hug and share food at the event.

As a crowd began to gather, violating Executive Order 53, DGS and Capitol Police closed the Capitol Square gates to prevent any further entry.

Police say they directed the people in attendance to adhere to the executive orders by limiting gatherings to group of 10 or fewer and everyone complied.

No arrests have been reported.

Gov. Northam and public health officials, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), have encouraged the public not to gather in groups in indoor and outdoor spaces to prevent exposure to and spread of COVID-19. The disease has killed over 200 and infected more than 6,800 in Virginia, as of Thursday.

The DGS says they and Capitol Police "will continue to monitor gatherings on Capitol Square and take appropriate actions when necessary to protect the public."

Protesters who did not make it inside Capitol Square before the gates were closed remained on the perimeter. While state officials said the orders are designed to protect Virginians from further spread of the coronavirus, the protesters say limit their freedom.

The groups say it's "not sustainable to continue this lockdown as the economic and societal consequences will be irreversible."

__________

Three newly formed groups are coming together on Thursday to protest Virginia’s

and

, which Governor Ralph Northam extended yesterday until May 8.

At 11:30 a.m., protesters led by ReOpen Virginia, End The Lockdown VA and Virginians Against Excessive Quarantine planned to come together at Virginia's Capitol Square to rally against any restrictions continuing beyond May 1. In a press release, they said thousands would be convening. As of noon on Thursday, several people had gathered, but images appeared to show that the police presence was greater.

“Government mandating sick people to stay home is called quarantine. However, the government mandating healthy citizens to stay home, forcing businesses and churches to close is called tyranny,” said Reopen Virginia in a release. “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."

The Governor’s office says Northam will continue to make decisions based on science, data and public health. His top priority will continue to be keeping Virginians safe.

The protest follows several across the country demanding the same thing from their state officials. One was held in North Carolina on Tuesday, where Raleigh police ordered the crowds to disperse because they violated the state's executive orders.

Virginia State Police

that, while Northam's Stay at Home order is not being enforced by law enforcement, the ban on gatherings of more than 10, through Executive Order 53, can be enforced by any local law enforcement agency, which can issue a warning for an initial offense and a misdemeanor for repeated violations.

Capitol Police and Virginia State Police are on scene in Richmond on Thursday, but they say they're there to monitor, with a goal to monitor the event and not make any arrests unless absolutely necessary.

The organizers of the protest say the state government, which under Constitutional law has the defined authority to protect public health, is violating their rights.

The groups say it's "not sustainable to continue this lockdown as the economic and societal consequences will be irreversible."

They cite statistics on how opioid deaths increase along with increases in unemployment and statistics on the increase in child abuse and domestic violence during the ongoing shutdowns.

Gov. Northam and health care professionals have repeatedly emphasized that modeling data shows lifting restrictions too early would result in a second surge of COVID-19 cases in Virginia that likely would not peak until August and could have the potential to overwhelm hospitals. However, models show that if Virginians continue following current guidelines and orders, hospitals will have the capacity to meet all surges and the curve should flatten with time.

The groups are calling for the protest to remain peaceful.

NOW: People are showing up for a planned protest of Governor Ralph Northam’s business closure extension. They are assembling in front of Governor’s Mansion. Lots of Capitol and Virginia State Police I’m scene to monitor.

Posted by NBC12 on Thursday, April 16, 2020

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