by Leslie Layton
Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-Yuba City) preached civil disobedience Thursday in front of the Chico Council Chambers, suggesting to unmasked constituents at an “Open Butte County” rally that opening up for business can be a necessary act of protest.
Speaking to almost 200 people, many of whom waved American flags or “Recall Newsom” signs, some sporting MAGA caps or Reopen T-shirts, the 3rd district assemblyman again said, as he has before, that shops and schools can consider reopening as acts of civil disobedience if they’re in violation of public health regulation.
“If laws are unjust … if we’re under an autocracy which it sure looks it is right now, then we are left with nothing left but civil disobedience,” Gallagher told his cheering crowd.
Gallagher has also filed a lawsuit with fellow lawmaker Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) that, in response to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive orders, attempts to remove the governor’s emergency powers.
The rally message felt Trumpian, in part because most who attended didn’t wear masks and Gallagher appeared at the event unmasked. A happily honking truck passed with a “Police lives Matter” flag and pro-Trump banners appeared. One sign stated, “The Constitution is my work permit.”
Gallagher didn’t suggest ways the pandemic might otherwise be managed. But he did touch on problems that stay-at-home orders have produced: The isolation that can lead to a mental health crisis, for example. He noted the unfairness in allowing big-box stores to open while family-run barbershops and restaurants are closed. And his listeners – who stood in shoulder-to-shoulder clusters in a hot cloud of wildfire smoke that had blanketed the city -– were delighted, responding with applause or shouts of “dictator” or “recall” to jabs at Newsom.
The event was organized by a Facebook group, “Citizens for opening Chico/Butte County” that disputes the assertion the county is in a public health emergency. Their movement has been fueled by encouragement from Gallagher and other elected Republicans, who challenge the wisdom or authority of the state’s public health pandemic response.
The role of conservative leaders in stirring up insurrection to state public health mandates and the experts who help design them has some people alarmed.
Hours after the Oct. 1 rally ended, news broke that President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump had tested positive for COVID-19. That in itself should convince everyone that ignoring public health guidance is unwise, Butte County District 3 Supervisor Tami Ritter said today.
“We can now see how well that’s working,” Ritter said, “by just looking at the leaders of the country and [their] potentially exposing thousands of others.”
“Red means ‘go’”, Gallagher says
Gallagher’s office did not respond to an effort by ChicoSol to set up a private interview. But referring to Butte County’s move on Sept. 29 to the state’s red-colored Tier 2 – which is less restrictive than Tier 1 where the county had been – Gallagher had a single comment: “Red means ‘go.’”
Under state guidelines, Butte County schools can open if and when the county remains in the red tier for 14 days. “I would encourage every school district, because we’re moving into red, open up your doors and stay open,” Gallagher said.
The uncertainty produced by the state public health department’s tier system rankles members of the Facebook group; the county could backslide and end up in a more restrictive tier again and be required to close newly-opened businesses or schools.
The tiers assigned by the California Department of Public Health are based on the number of new COVID cases appearing in a county; Butte’s new tier assignment reflects an apparent improvement in the local infection rate. But District 2 Supervisor Debra Lucero, who tracks local COVID data on her Facebook page, worries whether the data was skewed by a halt in most testing for 10 days during the wildfire crisis.
The “Citizens for opening” Facebook group, which has more than 6,000 members, emerged soon after Gallagher – who is expected to easily win re-election in his race against Democrat James Henson — began publicly encouraging his constituents to ignore state mandates.
“We are not asking for permission to have basic human rights!,” said Katie Difani Donahoo, a page administrator for the Facebook group in a pre-rally post. “And with this tier system, we are subjected to being moved up and down against our will.”
ChicoSol was unable to reach Difani Donahoo for comment, but in a later post, the page administrator acknowledges that “our numbers can change” in reference to the county’s COVID tracking.
“ … this has to be an absolute nightmare for our schools … think about restaurants, they have to staff, they have to plan,” she says in a video. “Contact the supervisors and ask them to put an end to this public health emergency.”
Earlier this week, another page administrator in the group, Jason Bougie, posted a template for a letter that he asked members to send to the Board of Supervisors requesting just that.
“The data supports that we are not in a local public health emergency,” the letter states. “Our hospitals are not overwhelmed …” The letter asks supervisors to “terminate the Butte County local emergency … and fight for Butte County to reopen and thrive again.”
But even if supervisors were convinced that the pandemic isn’t too big a problem for the county, such a declaration is meaningless, say local officials.
Declaring an end to a public health emergency doesn’t end it
“It would change nothing,” said Danette York, Butte County public health director. “We are under a state health officer. We are still in a public health emergency.”
In Butte County, as elsewhere in the country, the virus has been particularly lethal among the elderly. Almost 78% of the 45 COVID-related deaths in Butte County were people in the 75-year-and-older age group. About 42% of the total 2,840 cases have been in the 18-24-year-old age group; one of them has died.
Nationwide — and as the country with the highest number of COVID-related mortalities in the world — the virus is now the third-leading cause of death in the United States.
Butte County’s York told me that “it stands to reason” that mitigation measures are working in the county’s favor and can continue to work, moving us through a progression of less restrictive tiers.
“I completely understand where our small business owners are coming from,” York said. “We need to continue our mitigation efforts so that we can open the economy more.”
York this week tried to steer small businesses that are struggling to the federally-funded COVID-19 Relief Fund.
In the Facebook group, opinions vary, but members often don’t subscribe to her reasoning. Some encourage mask use; others boast about their success in claiming medical exemptions from the mask-wearing mandate. Still others see themselves as freedom fighters, casting aside fear of confrontation to shop unmasked in what they call a “plandemic.”
“Let’s quit being afraid!” says one member.
On the other side of the issue, there’s a “COVID Responsible Places” group page on Facebook where members often cry out for more enforcement and say they’re exhausted by continually asking their fellow shoppers to mask up.
Relying on the social compact
Meanwhile, Tony Lindsey, the city’s community development director for building and code enforcement, straddles these two seemingly oppositional worlds. Lindsey laughs when asked if his job feels tough. “It’s a challenge, an intricate balance,” he says. “It’s much easier now that we moved into Tier 2.”
Tier 2 allows indoor dining at 25% of a restaurant’s capacity. Lindsey says he hasn’t yet received a complaint that a restaurant is exceeding the capacity allowed by Tier 2.
His code enforcement division is complaint-driven, so he responds to calls (9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday) from citizens who spot what they think are violations. If the complaint is credible, his staff then tries to coax the violator into voluntary compliance with personal visits, followed by a notice-of-violation letter, and, finally, a citation.
“We have a multitude of tools given to us by the Council from light Tack Hammers to 50-pound sledgehammers,” Lindsey says. “But we prefer to work with businesses and provide them the resources to comply. We’re relying on the social compact to seek out voluntary compliance.”
Social compact? The old notion of voluntary compliance for the greater good? Yes, he replies. It has been awhile since this reporter has heard the term.
Lindsey says it’s working. Out of 446 complaints received by Sept. 28, code enforcement had issued only two citations. “There’s been a great deal of compliance,” Lindsey says.
Citations run between $100 and $500.
States have authority
Supervisor Lucero said she’s received about 50 letters that were “all the same” arguing that there’s no public health emergency. So she consulted with the county counsel’s office which confirmed that Butte County must follow state guidelines — unless it imposes rules that are more more stringent.
“I completely disagree with Assemblyman Gallagher urging people to disobey our public health officials who are charged with keeping the public healthy, asking for simple things like social distancing, masking up and sanitation,” Lucero said.
Lucero, a Democrat, noted her surprise that members of “the party that likes to quote law and order as their creed are encouraging civil disobedience.”
As a journalist, the anti-maskers and COVID-deniers make reporting more difficult. If you believe in the scientifically-proven usefulness of masking, and you’re hesitant to approach unmasked organizers at an event where people are tightly gathered, interviewing is a challenge.
I wondered: If Gallagher leads the district down the civil disobedience path, how will Lindsey’s social compact survive?
Rally gatherings are allowed as outdoor protest under state guidelines if participants mask and socially distance. Enforcement would fall under the jurisdiction of police, not his, Lindsey had told me the previous day. I thought then that I detected relief in his voice.
The only person I saw at the rally who was in a position to enforce state guidance was a Chico police officer, who wore, not a mask, but rather a friendly smile and a warm willingness to greet people with handshakes.