Protesters make noise in Trenton as officials say virus cases ‘leveling off’
TRENTON — About two dozen cars lined up near the Statehouse on Friday, with drivers honking their horns and passengers shouting against the state’s pandemic shutdown orders. Later, about a dozen people stood some distance apart outside the governor's office building to demand that he "open New Jersey."
While police did not stop the demonstration, state troopers charged Toms River resident Kim Pagan with violating the emergency orders by organizing the prohibited event.
The lunch-hour demonstration outside the building where Gov. Phil Murphy gave his daily news briefing may be the first of several demonstrations being planned in New Jersey. Several more are scheduled for Saturday and later this month.
“Open the door, governor!” one demonstrator shouted. “No more fear!”
“Fire Dr. Faucci!” someone else said, referring to the National Institutes of Health infectious disease expert who’s been one of the faces of the White House response to the crisis.
“We’ve been locked up for a month now. Now it is time to flatten the fear,” said Stephanie Locricchio, who was broadcasting the demonstration on her Facebook account. “We’re gathered in an effort to remind people that we have constitutional freedoms.”
State Police referred questions about the protest to the city's police department, which did not immediately return New Jersey 101.5's request for more information on Friday afternoon. New Jersey 101.5 could not reach Pagan for comment on Friday.
Elsewhere in the country, people opposed to gubernatorial curfews and social-distancing measures that have shuttered many businesses also have been gathering – often while remaining in their vehicles – to protest. In Michigan on Wednesday, thousands of demonstrators organized by conservative groups descended on the state capital.
Like opponents elsewhere, the New Jersey demonstrators said the executive orders violate constitutional rights and are hurting business, as seen by the record unemployment claims. The opponents have been encouraged by President Donald Trump, who has been gunning for states to reopen despite warnings from public health officials that doing so too soon could prove disastrous. On Friday, Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” and attacked New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo but didn’t mention New Jersey.
Most Americans, however, have been supporting the restrictions. A Pew Research Center poll released Thursday found that more Americans – about 66% -- were more worried about states lifting restrictions too soon rather than too late, which was a concern for 32%.
Gov. Phil Murphy has said that he supports the right to demonstrate during the crisis (as long as protestors maintain a safe distance from one another), but has showed no signs of backing down from his public health emergency orders that he issued about a month ago.
On Friday, he once again urged the state to “keep at it” even has health officials acknowledged for the first time that that the rate of infection appears to be flattening.
Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said North Jersey appears to have peaked although Central and South Jersey are still expecting their peaks in cases.
"We are cautiously optimistic," she said, adding that the cases are "leveling off but we still expect it to be very high" into the beginning of May.
The number of deaths on Friday reached 3,840. On Thursday night, state hospitals had more than 8,000 COVID-19 patients with nearly 1,600 of them on ventilators. The state’s field hospitals in Secaucus and Edison had 90 patients between them. Hospitals, meanwhile, discharged 787 patients overnight.
Murphy this week said schools would remain closed until at least May 15. He also has been saying that the availability of widespread rapid testing will be key to reopening large portions of the state's economy and public life.
Murphy said that to give up social distancing efforts now would result in a crushing surge at overwhelmed hospitals.
At the demonstration in Trenton, protesters were not as worried.
Locricchio, who has shared anti-vaccine content and conspiracies about the crisis being used to force people to get microchip implants, said the government was not trying to protect people.
“They spray our food with genetically modified chemicals and they fluoridate our water. They spray toxins and heavy metals in the air without people knowing,” she told her live audience of almost 800 people on Facebook. “You should wear a mask for that.”
Murphy on Friday said that even if he were to reopen the state tomorrow, his restaurateur friend pointed out that most people would not go out anyway because they already were staying away from restaurants before Murphy’s orders restricted them to take-out and drive-thru.
“We need to have confidence that we’ve broken the back of this virus, that we have healthcare infrastructure in place. That will give people the confidence to say it’s OK to get back in, to go out again to do things that are being allowed,” Murphy said.
“It’s up to us. This is going in the right direction, there’s no question about it,” he added. “We let our guard down, all bets are off. So please don’t let your guard down. I know it’s not fun ... but it is working. Keep at it, folks.”
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.