An estimated 200 protesters showed up to the corner of Geer and Tuolumne roads in Turlock on Saturday, calling on city, county and state officials to reopen businesses shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.
The rally was organized by Marie Roberson of Stanislaus County Concerned Citizens for the State of Jefferson and Lew Conley of California Valley Patriots, who hoped the event would not only let legislators know how they feel about current shelter-in-place orders but also encourage business owners, churches and other nonessential businesses to open their doors in spite of them.
“...We need to open things back up and quit being scared and get our immunity built up so we can handle this better,” Roberson said. “If you have to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you want to wear a full-face shield, wear one, but we have the right not to if we don’t want to.”
As of Sunday evening, Stanislaus County had reported 501 positive cases of coronavirus with 357 recoveries and 21 related deaths. Turlock has the most cases in the county with 161 cases, and at Turlock Nursing and Rehabilitation Center just down the road from Saturday’s protest, 95 residents and 38 staff members have tested positive for the virus and 11 current and former residents have died.
Reopen Turlock RallyAn estimated 200 protesters gathered along Geer Road in Turlock on the morning of May 9, 2020 to rally against the the current shelter-in-place orders and encourage local business owners to open their doors.
“We’ve all been through the flus and everything else that’s come along. We’ve never shut down our state, we never did this to our economy,” Conley said. “There’s people suffering here worse than a common cold, and it’s only affected mainly people that have immune system problems.”
The World Health Organization’s data conflicts with Conley’s statement.
According to WHO data, about 3.4 percent of reported COVID-19 cases have died globally, compared to the seasonal flu’s death rate of fewer than 1 percent. The novel virus’ speed of transmission and the public’s lack of immunity led to shelter-in-place orders in mid-March to help curb the spread of the disease.
Business owners from Turlock and throughout the county at Saturday’s protest lamented that the past two months have been devastating to their livelihoods, like Dale Falkenberg of Dale’s Guitar.
Falkenberg told the Journal that he hasn’t received any financial assistance from the government despite applying and is now $14,000 in debt. He’s opened his shop back up with social distancing and sanitizing measures in place in hopes that he can get out the red, he said.
“I need to get my shop open back up, and it doesn’t seem fair to me that Costco can sell guitars...why can they sell guitars and why can’t I sell guitars?” he asked. “We will be open until somebody comes and tells us we can’t be.”
On Friday, Turlock Police Department Chief Nino Amirfar stated in a press release that the State and County health orders are “valid and enforceable,” through a process including first education, then correspondence directing the business to close. Should the business refuse to comply, TPD would make an in-person visit to the location followed then by a citation if need be.
The orders are only enforced if a community member complains, Amirfar added.
“As your Chief, I have taken an oath to protect and serve our community, you and to uphold the laws of our Country, State and City. I do not have the luxury of picking and choosing what laws or orders I will or will not enforce,” Amirfar said. “I expect our community (you) to work together and obey the laws.”
Ed Yonan of Yonan’s Jewelers said he felt he had no choice but to open his store. Though he was approved for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, he said it hasn’t been enough.
“It’s affected us big time because there’s zero income coming in,” he said, mentioning his three daughters who are in college, car payments and home mortgage. “None of that stopped. No matter what everybody’s saying none of that stopped. We have to pay our bills...I was just feeling useless. I was mentally being drained, so I had to come into work. I’m sorry.”
There were also community members in attendance at the protest, like 91-year-old Turlock resident Howard Watts, who didn’t seem to be concerned about the statistical risk the virus poses to those in his age group.
“...I haven’t been infected, so I think go for it,” he said, adding that the rising number of cases in the county didn’t worry him. “I don’t know of a person who has it and I know quite a few people, but percentage wise that’s probably not very much.”
Not everyone shared the same sentiment as Watts. When photos and videos of the protest were posted by the Journal to social media, others weighed in on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
“If only their right to protest didn’t infringe on others’ right to health and safety, and of healthcare workers to have some relief and an end to this,” Laura Luis Mann wrote.
“There is going to be a spike in cases in 10-14 days. Then watch orders come down to really shelter at home,” Rachel Ladd predicted.
Turlock even trended on Twitter in California following the protest, with actress Patricia Arquette chiming in: “It’s your funeral. Darwin awards 2020.”
Vice Mayor Andrew Nosrati stated he was angered by the protest, but that the City Council is aware of the pain business owners are enduring. He believes protests could “prolong the suffering” and set back weeks of progress made by social distancing efforts.
“The overwhelming condemnation of the protest reassured me that that was not a representation of the larger Turlock community. These were separatists; individuals that refuse to accept they are part of this state and to express their individual freedoms over respecting the very real health risks they are almost ensuring will persist,” Nosrati said. “So many expressed embarrassment for belonging to a town that would house this, but the people I know and love from Turlock are some of the best in the world. I'll continue to do everything in my power to be a better representation for our community than what was seen today.”
Mayor Amy Bublak did not respond to a request for comment on the protest by the time this article was published, but five days before the rally she stated on Facebook that “the virus kills” and that the community needs “to be careful and thoughtful, not just government.”
“I support opening businesses safely. I support our small businesses. Anything you can purchase at a big box store should be allowed to be sold from our local businesses. Decisions must be fair and equitable and that is not the case presently,” she said. “We can be smart about reducing the amount of people within the business and add social distancing, masks, sanitizing etc., to encourage our local businesses. No one who is uncomfortable with reopening has to go to these businesses.”
As Saturday’s protestors await input from local officials, business owners in Turlock are taking it upon themselves to open in the meantime.
“We understand that there's people afraid and who want to be home. We’re not telling you not to be home. We’re just telling you if you don’t feel comfortable staying at home, get back out and get your life going. You’re going to feel much better being out here in the sun,” Conley said. “We all know when it’s time for you to go, a little hand sanitizer or mask isn’t going to stop that.”