On a weekend that saw a record number of new COVID-19 cases in New Jersey, activists marched from Morris Township to Morristown to protest lockdowns of businesses and schools and demand that Gov. Murphy reopen the economy.
“He needs to open up, open up, open up, for everybody in New Jersey,” declared Boonton restaurant owner Mickey Chopra, an immigrant who said his American dream “is about to shatter.”
Citing a shuttered Morristown fitness studio, Morris County Surrogate Heather Darling, who led Sunday’s event for a group she calls We the People NJ, warned more dreams will be “crushed…by these draconian moves that the governor is unilaterally meting out.”
The flag-waving crowd–which included a man with a Confederate flag– was estimated by Morristown police at between 100 and 150 people. They were peaceful, though there were a few sharp exchanges with observers.
“Be mad at Mitch McConnell, not Murphy! Shame on all of you,” a passerby shouted at demonstrators sporting pro-Trump banners, hats and yes, masks. Someone shot back an epithet, and a man flashed his red Trump t-shirt at him.
Video: Group protests Governor Murphy’s emergency orders:
Driving by Morristown town hall, a motorist rolled down his window to yell support for Trump. Another driver blared a song that cursed the president.
A counter-protester from Phillipsburg, who gave his name as Reggie, age 69, used a golf bag to anchor a sign chiding the president for hitting the links instead of promoting safety protocols from Dr. Anthony Fauci and other health experts.
“What golf course?” challenged a Trump supporter. The president teed off Saturday at the Trump National Golf Club in Virginia.
One man brandished a Confederate battle flag.
“It’s not hateful… this flag has been around for a real long time. I’m proud to hold it,” the man said.
Asked if he considered how the flag might be offensive, he answered, “No. You tell me. You’re the boss,” and walked away.
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, the Defense Department tacitly banned Confederate flags from military bases. NASCAR barred the Confederate symbol from motor races, and Mississippi lawmakers voted to remove it from their state flag, becoming the last state to do so.
Darling, who is a lawyer and former Republican freeholder, said she promoted the event as nonpartisan and told Morristown Green the Confederate flag “certainly was not representative of the group We the People NJ, by any means.”
SURGING COVID, PAINFUL SHUTDOWNS
Sunday’s protest came one day after New Jersey registered a record 4,679 new cases of COVID-19, in a week that saw the governor announce 10 pm curfews for restaurants and 10-person limits for indoor gatherings. Stricter lockdowns may be necessary, Murphy cautioned.
One million new cases were reported nationwide for the week, and coronavirus hospitalizations hit a new high, spurring the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ask Americans to stay home for Thanksgiving and keep celebrations small.
So far, New Jersey has confirmed nearly 15,000 COVID fatalities. The disease has killed nearly 257,000 people across the United States, and almost 1.4 million worldwide.
Murphy’s name elicited lusty boos at each mention on Sunday. One woman toted a sign labeling the Democratic governor a fascist.
But a majority of Garden Staters agree with Murphy’s emergency measures, according to an October poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Sixty percent of adults surveyed approved of his overall job performance, with 31 percent disapproving. Some 72 percent of respondents gave him good marks for his handling of the coronavirus.
At least two vaccines may be available by spring. Murphy urged residents to redouble their safety practices for now.
“I just ask folks, bear down everybody, I know this stinks. I know you’ve got fatigue. Who could blame you? I know we all do. Keep these (masks) on, keep away from each other,” he said on Friday, comparing the holiday period to the Super Bowl. “We’ve got to win it.”
Businesses and households, meanwhile, continue feeling the pain of pandemic restrictions.
New Jersey’s unemployment rate climbed to 8.2 percent last month, and nearly 1.8 million residents have filed for benefits since the pandemic struck in March, Murphy acknowledged last week.
Moti Almakias, a Roxbury resident who owns a beverage company, told Sunday’s crowd he did not mean to minimize the health impact of the coronavirus.
“But we know that the effects of closing our economy and our lives are, by far, more devastating… This is not only the destruction of big business. This is the destruction of the individual.”
Several speakers raised concerns about educational, emotional and psychological harm to students forced to hunker down with virtual studies.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin. Click/hover on images for captions:
Almakias’ son Jake, a senior at Roxbury High School, said it was unfair to deprive students of proms, sports, and the escape that classrooms provide for youths from troubled homes.
“I think we can all agree school is not meant to be on computers, and that kids are not meant to lose opportunities and experiences that we’re all supposed to have during these years of our lives,” Jake Almakias said.
“What do kids have to look forward to, to wake up and look on a screen? This is not the way that Americans are supposed to live. This is not what the government is supposed to do to us,” he said.
Tanya Maximoff of Morristown said her grammar school-aged daughter “started sobbing…like her heart was breaking” when told last week that the Morris School District was going virtual for 14 days.
Braving the grey November chill in a red-white-and-blue Make America Great Again ski cap, Maximoff recounted how her daughter pleaded: “I want to be be in school. When will I ever go back?”
“I think it should be right away,” Maximoff said, to cheers.
Online it’s impossible to determine when students are in crisis and need counseling, said Drew University history Professor Jonathan Rose. Nor can he teach effectively via computer, he said.
“It is not working. They are simply not engaged. As a teacher, I belong in the classroom with my students. Because that’s the only way real education takes place,” Rose said.
Praising schools for low transmission rates, the governor last week voiced support for keeping classrooms open, to the extent possible.
The novel coronavirus is spreading in homes, not in schools or places of business, Darling said.
Sunday’s activists were “asking for the right to exercise personal responsibility as they go about their lives… We can’t have more lockdowns.”