Coronavirus NC: 1 arrested as ReOpenNC protesters violate state's Stay-at-Home order in downtown Raleigh

Wednesday, April 15, 2020
1 arrested as ReOpenNC protesters violate state's Stay-at-Home order in downtown Raleigh
1 arrested as ReOpenNC protesters violate state's Stay-at-Home order in downtown Raleigh

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- It was part protest, part campaign rally, part tailgate and maybe even just something to break up the monotony.

Regardless, the ReopenNC demonstration outside the North Carolina General Assembly on Tuesday revealed the growing frustration, unease and anxiety being felt by many families across the state.

"I cry every day," Julie Barham, a hair stylist from Winston-Salem, said. "I'm doing the best I can. I need to open."

Barham was among a crowd of at least 100 people who showed up at the corner of Jones Street and Wilmington Street to urge Governor Roy Cooper to lift the Stay-At-Home order and allow non-essential businesses to reopen.

"Everybody gets to make their own choice," she said. "If you're scared, stay home. I'm not scared and I don't want to stay home. I'm a free American and we have to start acting like it."

ReOpenNC protesters violate state's Stay-at-Home order

Ashley Smith, a small business owner in Boone, created the group called ReopenNC on social media. As of Tuesday, the group had more than 25,000 followers - five times as many positive COVID-19 cases in the Tar Heel State.

Smith's idea for the protest, however, was for demonstrators to respect the law and work within its parameters; she called on folks to stay in their cars and honk their horns.

Many people did that - unleashing a thunderous chorus every 15-20 minutes - but many others did not.

"I don't feel protected at all," Erin Engstrom, a realtor from Raleigh, pronounced as she held up signs with her husband and two daughters. "I feel my rights have been completely removed. The world I'm raising my children is has been completely changed."

Police issued several warnings for the crowd to disperse as the protesters violated social-distancing guidelines and limits on public gatherings.

Officers from the State Capitol Police, Raleigh Police Department and Wake County Sheriff's Office soon began closing streets around the Legislature and warned demonstrators that their actions violated Gov. Roy Cooper's Stay-at-Home order and public health orders.

After the third warning, much of the crowd began to leave.

Monica Faith Ussery, 51, of Holly Springs was arrested and charged with violation of an executive order.

Also on Tuesday, Congressman Greg Murphy, a Republican representing Eastern North Carolina, released a video on his Facebook page acknowledging the frustrations shared by many in his district and pitching his ideas for a slow, methodical reopening.

"There is no perfect right answer but we simply cannot hide and shelter in place until we have a vaccine," Murphy, himself a physician, said. "We did what we had to do and it was the right thing to do for right now."

A spokesman for Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican seeking reelection this fall, sent a statement to ABC11 about the protest:

"Through his regular telephone town halls, Senator Tillis has encouraged North Carolinians to follow the social distancing guidelines put in place by Governor Cooper and local officials, and to follow the health and safety recommendations from President Trump and the CDC. Senator Tillis has also been encouraging everyone to be a responsible neighbor by wearing a mask when they go out in public and do their part to help reduce the spread of the virus. The decision on how and when to re-open the economy should be based on the data, with the ultimate goal of preserving public health."

Raleigh Police issued a statement Tuesday evening that said: "The goal of the Raleigh Police Department is to help residents remain as safe as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic by reminding them to observe the Wake County Stay-at-Home Proclamation and the Governor's Executive Orders. In these unprecedented times and unusual circumstances, both the Governor and the County have declared a state of emergency. Under these current and temporary declarations, protesting is not listed as an essential function.

"The Wake County District Attorney is the individual who decides charging language for failure to adhere to the Governor's Orders and the Wake County Proclamation, when charging is appropriate, and what charges individuals may face for violating either one of these orders. However, as a law enforcement agency, the Raleigh Police Department is bound to carry out the regulations stipulated in the Executive Order and the Wake County Proclamation. But more important is the health and wellness of all who live in our community, including the officers who must engage in circumstances such as these. We simply want everyone to be safe during this very serious public health crisis.

On Monday, Cooper warned that "our biggest enemy is complacency," and that the spread of the novel coronavirus was accelerating at a much slower pace, showing that social distancing guidelines were working.

Cooper's executive order limiting the number of shoppers in retail stores went into effect Monday at 5 p.m., another measure aimed at creating social distancing and slowing the spread of the virus.

As of Tuesday morning, 108 people in North Carolina have died from COVID-19-related illnesses and 5,024 cases have been reported across the state.