POINT PLEASANT BEACH – When news of the protesters spread online, some called them freedom fighters while others called them foolish but a thousand or more people came out in red, white and blue on Memorial Day to have their voices heard.
Protestors gathered at a borough parking lot on Memorial Day morning wanting the state to lift stay at home orders and other restrictions concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.
Organizers and attendees of the event came out early to the Silver Lake Parking Lot – Arnold Avenue and Ocean Avenue as part of a “Freedom March of New Jersey” which kicked off at 11 a.m. and lasted until 4 p.m.
The protest that was created on Facebook by a group opposed to the lockdown, ReopenNJ, have been pushing for Gov. Phil Murphy to lift restrictions regarding social distancing and closing non-essential businesses.
Ryan Christopher and Jessica Courtney are the administrators of ReopenNJ. “We started this group less than two months ago with just the idea of bringing together a community that could help inform each other and stand up for our freedom and our rights,” Christopher said.
“We have since taken a lot of heat for standing up for what we believe in from family and others alike. We are considering camping in front of Murphy’s place on the sidewalk. Since his order made us homeless it would only seem right,” said Christopher.
Christopher added, “luckily we have a very supporting community here in ReopenNJ that has helped us with a place to stay and are currently helping donate to our fund to keep us going.”
He added, “regardless of what comes our way we will never stand down or silence our voices and the voices of the many New Jersians who stand tall with us.”
Christopher said his group wished to see a strong focus on the business owners “who are opening and rising against these insane orders while still opening safely. We gain courage from the courage of every member who speaks their voice.”
Philadelphia singer, Brianna Taylor from ABC TV’s American Idol and MTV’s The Real World: Hollywood kicked off the event by singing the national anthem. She sang several other songs during the afternoon. “We can have fun celebrating our liberty today. Sing along everyone,” she said.
A DJ who was scheduled for the event was not able to perform. Borough police told an event organizer that this would go contrary to the town’s noise ordinance. Police also noted that no permit for the rally had been required.
Most attendees expressed concern about the economic health of the country, particularly small businesses that have had to shut down and have been hurt by coronavirus guidelines. Others were skeptical of the impact of the pandemic. Others felt the country should never have been shut down and cited the Constitution as being violated by the governor. They called his actions an overreach of authority.
Michele Viventi of Brick came out with her 14-year-old son Ben Sluka with the sign they made for the protest. She said, “I don’t believe the country should have been shut down in the first place. I don’t believe the virus is a hoax. I just think that the measures that have been taken were way too severe.”
She added, “it is a shame that a true virus has been so politicized. The CDC going back and forth on their mask guidelines. I think it would be better to say we’re not sure what the correct way to handle this is based on what happened in Italy. It has become so divisive.”
Another early arrival to the event were Wendy and Steve Servio who traveled from Essex County for the rally. “We should allow these small businesses to open up. This is hurting them. I respect the virus,” Wendy Servio said.
Another North Jersey attendee was Steven Freeman of Sussex County. “I think some choices were made at the beginning of this based on a lot of unknowns. I think a lot of data has come out that has shown the risk really outweighs the benefit of having these draconian measures. Businesses are failing right now. A lot of places by me are closing down. I currently am working thankfully by the grace of God.”
Brick resident Jason Carey, sported a Jesus T-shirt and a MAGA hat for the event saying, “I am here for these fellows, the business people. I care for their right to have their business open. It is about their right to have their business. Shutting down businesses is what is unconstitutional especially over a fake virus that kills one percent of people. I have COVID. They banned me from the police department so I can’t go there to infect them. This is my third protest in three weeks.”
Some onlookers thought the protest was a rally for President Donald Trump’s re-election. One reason for that was Michael Shapiro of Belleville who came dressed in a star-spangled suit and had a booth area with plenty of Trump merchandise to sell. “Politics and the pandemic, it is Memorial Day. You have to make the best of it right?”
Trump flags were going for $25 a pop but many protestors came prepared with their own flags for the event. Those flags and hats associated with the president weren’t hard to find.
Some, like Kelly and Bill Murphy of Toms River felt that the mix of politics and a pandemic weren’t appropriate. They carried a sign showing a deceased relative who served in the military and died in Korea. “Today this is about opening up the state of New Jersey. I disagree that the Trump stuff, not that we are against him, should be here today,” Bill Murphy said.
He added, “the country never should have been locked down. The consequences of shutting down the economy are more dire than COVID-19.”
“Our Constitution is getting shredded,” Kelly Murphy said.
The rally drew a large number of business owners including Kyle Newell and Ian Smith co-owners of the Atilis Gym in Bellmawr, Camden County which was ordered shut down by the state after several days of defying the governor’s orders when they reopened.
Democratic State Assemblyman Jamel Holley, Republican Sen. Michael Testa and several Cape May business owners who are currently involved in a lawsuit with Gov. Murphy along with a borough salon owner spoke during the event.
Testa noted that “people have been waiting 7-10 weeks for their unemployment checks. We are already one of the most overtaxed states in the country.”
The borough’s beach was just a block from the event. Unlike most northern barrier island beaches it was closed.
Earlier in the week, Point Pleasant Beach officials said that their beach would not be open in for Memorial Day weekend as it did not have enough staff including special officers in place to handle the influx of visitors.
Borough Police Chief Joseph Michigan said, “we share in everyone’s frustrations and anxieties that this pandemic has caused. We hope for the day to come that we will go back to some sense of normalcy. Our hope is this comes sooner than later.”
The chief also noted prior to the rally that his department would make their presence known at the event and that they anticipated a large crowd. K-9 dogs sniffed vehicles parked in the parking lot early on during the event.
“As with any planned event, we put operational plans in place that ensure the safety of everyone,” Chief Michigan added. The Ocean County Sheriff’s Office was also working with borough police to maintain order at the rally site.
“We respect everyone’s constitutional rights to assemble and peacefully protest,” However, in abundance of caution, residents and visitors should expect to see a very high visible law enforcement presence, the chief said.