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Protesters flout public health guidelines at Washington Capitol

Protesters rally against social-distancing measures at the Washington state Capitol on April 19, 2020.
Will James
Protesters rally against social-distancing measures at the Washington state Capitol on April 19, 2020.

Protesters ignored government orders intended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus Sunday, amassing at the Washington state Capitol to decry social-distancing measures and demand officials reopen the economy.

State police estimate 2,500 people gathered for the rally, some standing shoulder-to-shoulder on or around the Capitol steps as they chanted "Let us work" and "U.S.A." Few covered their faces or made efforts to stand apart from one another. 

The Olympia protest had the trappings of the right-wing rallies supporting President Donald Trump that have grown common on the West Coast since 2016. Participants waved Trump flags and campaign signs.

Some marched in the black and yellow shirts worn by members of the Proud Boys group, while others stood by with assault-style rifles slung on their backs. Joey Gibson, leader of the group Patriot Prayer and a fixture at West Coast pro-Trump rallies, made an appearance.

Credit Will James / KNKX
Protesters in the black and yellow shirts worn by the Proud Boys march in Olympia on April 19, 2020.

The Olympia protest was one of several around the United States aimed at governors who have taken economically painful steps to slow the spread of the virus. Trump appeared last week to endorse actions in two Democrat-led states, tweeting "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" and "LIBERATE MINNESOTA!"

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's stay-at-home order is scheduled to expire May 4, six weeks after it was signed, but could be extended further.

Among protesters in Olympia interviewed by KNKX, some said they believed news of the novel coronavirus outbreak was invented or hyped as part of a conspiracy to assert government control or hurt Trump politically.

Others believed fears of the virus were overblown, and the benefits of social distancing weren't worth the economic fallout. Some echoed Trump's comparisons of the coronavirus to the flu. All said they were not worried about catching or spreading the virus.

"This is like another ailment," said Irina Alekseyev, who said she drove six hours to the rally from Spokane. "Maybe a little bit more people die than the flu." 

Washington had 245 residents die of the flu in the 2018-19 flu season, according to the state Department of Health. More than 600 have died of COVID-19, despite radical changes to everyday life that have stemmed the outbreak.

Alekseyev said she was unable to work one of her two jobs, at a gym, as a result of government orders closing many businesses. Of the seven protesters interviewed by KNKX, she was the only one who said she lost work because of social-distancing measures.

"I didn't really get personally affected by my employment, but some of my kids were very worried," said Alexis Wallace, who lives in the Olympia area. "They're adults and they live on their own, and they were really worried, and calling me like, 'Mom, what's going to happen?'"

Credit Will James / KNKX
An estimated 2,500 protesters, according to state police, amassed at the Washington state Capitol on April 19, 2020.

Wallace said she believed social-distancing measures had gone on long enough to stop the coronavirus from spreading, despite public health officials saying otherwise.

"People I used to think were sane and levelheaded are really in fear," Wallace said. "They were like, 'Why are you going to this rally today? You're going to breathe on other people and you're going to kill people and it's going to be on you.' And I'm like, 'No, because we've already been in quarantine.'" 

Public health officials say social-distancing efforts have only slowed the spread of the virus, which is still circulating in the state, and any loosening of those measures would cause it to flare back up.

"These are difficult and frustrating times," Inslee said in a statement in response to the rally. "I understand the urgency of this crisis. However, this is not the time to halt the progress we have made."

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Will James reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. He created and hosted the Outsiders podcast, chronicling homelessness in Olympia for more than a year, in partnership with The Seattle Times.

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