By Marcy Charette
May 2, 2020
They were business owners. They were the newly unemployed. They were those fortunate enough to still have a job in the Age of COVID. They were church-goers and the unchurched, Millennials and Baby Boomers and everything in between. They were singles and families. They were blond, brunette, silver-haired or bald. They came on foot and by car and in motorcycles that deafened the area. They came with masks, flags and homemade signs, baby carriages and a dog on a leash or a sheaf of pamphlets to distribute. Most came unarmed; a few open-carried. Some came with nothing more than curiosity or deep conviction.
They came from all over New Hampshire, more than 600 of them, and, in front of the State House in Concord, gave Governor Sununu a message on Saturday: reopen New Hampshire now.
Organized by ReOpenNH, a grassroots political action committee chaired by Andrew Manuse of Derry, the Concord Freedom Rally focused on getting New Hampshire back to work via a petition drive and a coordinated demonstration against what they see as arbitrary government power.
The petition, signed by more than 5,000 Granite Staters, asked Governor Sununu to end his declared State of Emergency immediately and allow residents to make their own decisions about re-opening, patronizing and working for New Hampshire businesses.
Governor Sununu did not attend the rally. “It wasn’t as if we hadn’t invited him,” smiled rally participant Melissa Blasek of Merrimack. “I sent him an invitation. He declined due to a scheduling conflict. He did, however, post a photo on social media, showing him hiking on the Seacoast while we were at the rally.”
The petition comes in response to the governor’s phased in plan, Stay-at-Home 2.0, designed to ease COVID-19 restrictions put in place in March. Under the Governor’s plan, campgrounds, manufacturing services, state parks, golf courses, barbers and hair salons, retail stores and drive-in theaters will be allowed to open gradually throughout May.
While reopening many New Hampshire businesses, the governor’s plan places strict guidelines on services newly reopened businesses may offer. Restaurants, for example, are limited to outdoor seating, in tables of six patrons, spaced six feet apart. Hair salons may cut hair, but not blow-dry it. Golf courses may open but their pro shops must remain closed. State parks will reopen in time for Memorial Day weekend, but public ocean beaches will remain closed. The governor’s plan also outlines requirements for both employees and customers, including masks, hand sanitizing and social distancing, as the state continues to deal with COVID-19. The new guidelines will be in place until May 31.
For Marc Fauteux, the issue of employment was paramount. “It’s time for New Hampshire to open up and go back to work,” he said. “We’re smart people. We can take measures to be safe.”
For protester Jill Domosh of Derry, the governor’s plan has been disastrous for her husband’s business as a marketing representative. “Video conferencing is not effective tool for a marketing rep,” she noted, “and because construction is planned months in advance, restaurants and hotels are not purchasing as they might otherwise.” For Jill and her husband, the massive lay-offs across the state resulting from Sununu’s orders spell a troubled economy in the state for months, and perhaps years into the future. “We may be looking at unemployment numbers that make the Great Depression look like child’s play,” she said.
The governor’s designation of some businesses as “essential” and others as “non-essential” proved equally aggravating to rally participants. Many businesses were hit hard by the “non-essential” designation under the governor’s initial orders in March. Tattoo parlors, many retail stores, and the self-employed have found little or no relief under Stay-at-Home 2.0. To those dependent on a paycheck or who have labored to build a business, the state’s designation as “non-essential” rankles. In their eyes, their work is not just essential, but critical to their quality of life. The crowd rejected the idea that any in New Hampshire are not essential, and repeated that sentiment in signs, speeches and conversations.
None of the governor’s stay-at-home orders targeted churches or religious services directly. However, limits on gatherings to groups of ten or less and regulations on social distancing effectively shut down most live church services in the state. Many churches transitioned to virtual services as a stop-gap measure. But protesters found virtual religious services a poor substitute for the free exercise of religion they had known. And they showed it, in speeches, in signs and in clusters of Christians eager to pray with one another without social distancing.
Pamphleteers freely handed out literature at the rally, targeting the dangers of vaccines, the need to protect Second Amendment rights, and even secession. These concerns shared a common theme at the rally, that government overreach poses a danger to the health and liberty of New Hampshire citizens.
Melissa Blasek found the governor’s stay-at-home orders ran far beyond the authority given to him in New Hampshire law. “The governor can declare a state of emergency if he finds ‘a natural, technological, or man-made disaster of major proportions’,” she said. “New Hampshire’s experience with COVID hasn’t been a ‘disaster of major proportions.’ In March, we might have needed to assess the progress of the virus. Now, in May, with fewer than 100 deaths state-wide and many hospitals nearly empty, we recognize that COVID is not a disaster of major proportions. But the damage done to New Hampshire by Sununu’s stay-at-home orders is a threat of major proportions to our freedom. And it needs to stop now.”
Talk show host and political activist Keith Hanson, addressed the protesters vigorously about Constitutional liberty. “If you own a business, you are essential. If you’re a member of a church, your God is essential,” he told the cheering crowd.
“Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the ability for a redress of grievances, the right to keep and bear arms: this is what makes us different from every other hellhole on this planet: our freedoms, our ability to stand up and defend ourselves against tyranny. That initiative has to start today. I’m not asking him [Governor Sununu] to reopen the state. I’m telling you, this is your state. Maintain the New Hampshire advantage and open it back up.”
At the conclusion of the rally, protesters gathered on the steps of the State House, holding the petition to Governor Sununu: open up the state now. They effectively threw the ball into Sununu’s court and they plan to keep protesting every other week until the state is fully reopened.
How the governor handles those volleys remains to be seen.