With more than 10% of Chattanooga's workforce filing for unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some Chattanoogans plan to gather to protest stay-at-home orders, something also being done by like-minded people in other cities across the state and nation.
Their rally, scheduled for 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Chief John Ross (Market Street) Bridge, has been met with support but also pushback from those concerned about further spread of the virus.
The rally is part of a growing number of protests staged outside governors' mansions and state capitols. Here in Tennessee, crowds in several cities are set to gather at their main government buildings on Sunday to "protest the removal of our constitutional rights."
In places like Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia, small-government groups, supporters of President Donald Trump, anti-vaccine advocates, gun rights backers and others have united behind a deep suspicion of efforts to shut down daily life to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As their frustration with life under lockdown grows, they've started to openly defy the social distancing rules in an effort to put pressure on governors to ease them.
For those organizing and attending the rally here in Chattanooga, they believe the economic impact far outweighs the health crisis.
"The virus predictions have been not as severe and often completely incorrect," said Brandon Lewis, one of Sunday's rally organizers and a former county election commissioner.
So "while the experts' forecasts fall apart, the economic and civil liberty costs rise daily," he said. "We feel the economic damage caused by these misinformed measures have already caused more damage [to] the community than the coronavirus ever could."
And when weighing the certain economic and civil liberty devastation against possible health devastation that "can't be proven," people are starting to feel like "the pendulum might need to swing back toward the middle or back to where it was."
Those who oppose the rally believe the true number of infections in Hamilton County isn't yet known because there hasn't been enough testing, and any flattening of the curve would show that sheltering in place does work.
For Ginger Moss, a local activist who has organized a number of her own marches and protests, holding a rally during a pandemic is endangering the community when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is calling for social distance.
"Organizing a group of people and ignoring CDC social distancing guidelines endangers not only the participants of the gathering but of the other citizens in this area," Moss said via Facebook message. "This event flies in the face of science and good reason. If the participants stay in their cars, then no harm done. If they get out of their cars and gather in person, then they are endangering our health."
Ultimately, Lewis and Suzanne Eltz, another local protest organizer, said they believe it's up to individuals, especially those who are immunocompromised, to protect themselves and that the government shouldn't have the authority to impose these restrictions on everyone.
Cassondra Monique is immunocompromised.
"Relaxing social distancing measures directly affects me; not to mention others in my family," she said via Facebook message. "The people who are creating and attending these rallies are advocating death and political speech, not free speech or economy stimulation. We have seen from other countries what will happen if we do not continue with social distancing measures.
"If we were talking about something that could be seen and therefore avoided then I'd say, 'great! Everyone should protect themselves. This is invisible, if you have it you may not even know it and you interact with other people, those people in turn interact with more people; those numbers increase exponentially and people taking precautions unavoidably get it because statistically it's bound to happen."
For Lewis, he said he thinks that "people would feel a lot better about all of this if city councils and county commissions and legislatures had voted on this, but it's one man's opinion based on the information that he's gathered. A lot of other people have different opinions based on the information they have access to."
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said he hopes that "everybody knows that the community's health and safety are at the center of every decision I make about how we can contain the virus, while also trying to make sure our local businesses suffer the least during this time."
Berke is regularly on calls with medical experts, community leaders and business owners of all sizes to make sure the city is executing the best possible response during this global health crisis, spokeswoman Richel Albright said.
The city has banned public gatherings of more than 10 people under the ongoing state of civil emergency, so a large rally would be in violation of that executive order. But it's not clear if any enforcement will take place if people violate the order. As of Friday afternoon, 60 Facebook users claimed to be going, and 146 were interested.
Chattanooga police have said they will "continue to educate people who choose to gather and violate the order," police spokeswoman Elisa Myzal said.
Police are preparing to "assess, monitor, and respond as needed. Just like we do with any other protest, march, or public gathering," she said.
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