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Protesters Calling To Reopen VA Businesses Cause Shutdown Of Capitol Square

a group of people standing close together outside the gates of capitol square
People protesting from outside of the gates after Capitol Police temporarily shut down Capitol Square on Thursday. (Crixell Matthews/VPM)

Protesters angry about the ongoing restrictions on movement during the coronavirus pandemic gathered in Richmond’s Capitol Square on Thursday afternoon.

The group of about two dozen people called for Governor Ralph Northam to reopen non-essential businesses and get people back to work. Views on the pandemic and social distancing measures ranged from those who think it’s a hoax to people upset at being out of work. 

Tarus Woelk, a substitute teacher in Glen Allen, attended the rally. She said she will be out of work until August and worries about how it will affect school children.

“It’s too much of an extreme at this point,” Woelk said. “It’s been over a month. Let people get outside again, because, truthfully, I think mental health could be more detrimental in the long-run if we keep going at this rate.”

Other protesters said they see the governor’s State of Emergency and ‘stay-at-home’ order as violating their constitutional rights. 

Floyd Bane of Midlothian went to the demonstration after hearing about it from his local representative, Republican state Senator Amanda Chase. 

“People who are older, who are compromised, have them stay at home,” Bane said. “But to those who aren’t compromised, who aren’t sick, to tell them to stay home, I have a real problem with that.”

Capitol Police temporarily shut down access to Capitol Square about half an hour after protesters arrived. About a dozen people continued to protest outside of the gates near the Governor’s Mansion.

Capitol Police spokesperson Joe Macenka said the order was given to close the gates into Capitol Square because protesters were in groups larger than ten and encouraging others to share food.

The protest comes one day after Northam extended the closure of non-essential businesses through May 18. A separate ‘stay-at-home’ order is currently in effect through June 10.

Most of the protesters on Thursday were members of the Facebook group "REOPEN VIRGINIA." Other protests against the COVID-19 restrictions are being organized for next Monday and Wednesday.

In recent days, Republican leaders in Virginia have also called for a reopening of the state. Republican House leadership issued a press statement yesterday, saying Northam should allow businesses to reopen under broad guidelines. 

“Hundreds of thousands of Virginians are hurting right now,” the statement read. “They’re scared, and they need something to hold on to. People need hope. They need to know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, that this nightmare is going to end.”

As of Thursday, the Virginia Department of Health reported more than 6,800 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 disease and 208 deaths.