On Dec. 12, about 30 people in support of reopening businesses under current COVID-19 guidelines held a protest in front of the Veterans Memorial Building in Hollister.
After a round of speeches and one group member singing, the group marched up San Benito Street and made their way to Paine’s Restaurant at 421 East Street to show their support for the restaurant, which has continued to offer outdoor dining in defiance of state orders.
Current rules, based on regional ICU availability, limit counties under mandate to take-out and delivery only.
“This whole situation has gone sour,” said Paine’s Restaurant owner John Kouretas on Dec. 16. “We let our local government dictate everything, but they do nothing about corruption. They just go after the small businesses. I’m at the point where I’m going A.W.O.L. [absent without leave].”
He said he will close for two weeks after delivering catered food Dec. 19, “so no one gets hurt.”
Organizer Tony Avilla said the latest shutdown is an overreach against First Amendment rights.
“We are here not only to support our businesses, but our churches,” he said. “We hope they will be bold enough to open.”
After posting about the protest on social media, Avilla said the group has been labeled as racist. Avilla, who described himself as biracial, said, “The main issue with our culture today and for the past 50 years has been to divide using racism. People of faith recognize it is a sin problem and the only way this issue will be resolved is to invite Jesus Christ back into our country.”
Vivian Stubblefield said she attended the protest to fight for freedom.
“I’m fighting for our freedom to go to and fro, and to worship,” she said. “They’re stopping us from assembling… and to stand up for the Constitution. I’m for the Constitution and against the lockdown.”
When asked how she would respond to people who would say they are endangering others by coming together, Stubblefield said, “It’s in the Lord’s hands. When our time comes, it comes.”
Stephanie Castro, co-organizer of the protest, said the group opposes Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest stay-at-home mandate. She said those who disagree with the group can continue to wear masks and practice social distancing.
“There’s minimal risk,” she said. “If we could eat outside at one point, we can stand outside and practice free speech and freedom of assembly. The Constitution does not say that if there’s a pandemic all your rights go away. We need to exercise our rights so they know they can’t do this to us.”
Courtney Evans, owner of Kamal Yoga Studio and one of the founders of #OpenSBC, told the group that she’s an advocate for every human to make choices for themselves, whether it involves their religion or where they work. Evans was arrested a few days later on Dec. 15, moments before the San Benito County Board of Supervisors meeting. She faces charges of trespassing and resisting arrest after a staff member reported that she refused to follow the rules required to attend the meeting in person.
“Every single one of us is essential. How you put food on your table is essential,” Evans said at the protest. “In 2019, I was given a business-of-the-year award and recognized at the state level. My business has been open since May, and I have had almost 4,000 people choose to come into my business. I do not tell them to cover their faces or where to stand, and I’ve had zero cases of COVID.”
Even though Evans has become known for her stance against masks, she claimed she has never said COVID-19 is not real.
Some protestors wore masks, but most didn’t, and most maintained social distancing. There were a few hugs, after asking each other for permission. There were no counter-protesters and only a couple honking horns from passing cars.
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