WOODLAND, Cowlitz County — Outside the door to Brock’s Bar & Grill, people stood on the sidewalk with U.S. and Trump 2020 flags. Inside, the place was packed with people enjoying Sunday afternoon drinks in what was billed as a “Day of Defiance” to the COVID-19 restrictions that have banned such service in the state of Washington.
Owner Polly Merwin says she worked 32 years tending bar to make the money to buy the business, which she fears is now at risk.
“We the people have to take a stand. Small business can’t survive,” Merwin declared.
This protest on Sunday was part of a broader backlash in parts of Washington and Oregon against measures imposed in recent months by the states’ governors to try to slow the spread of the pandemic.
The movement has gained support among residents in some communities wary of government pronouncements and angry over rules that have kept big-box stores open while shutting down indoor-dining services.
And it has been championed on social media by a far-right network including Patriot Prayer, Washington Three Percenters, the Proud Boys and People’s Rights, a group formed with the help of Ammon Bundy, an organizer of the 2016 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge takeover.
These events have included statehouse rallies in Olympia and Salem that drew armed supporters, and sometimes turned violent. And some have done double duty as rallies in support of President Donald Trump as speakers echo the president’s claims — rejected dozens of times by courts — that the election was stolen from him through fraud.
Another “Stop the steal” rally is planned for Wednesday at the Olympia Capitol to coincide with a larger protest in D.C. as Congress meets to certify the Electoral College votes that will put President-elect Joe Biden in the White House.
The Washington and Oregon events are promoted on a “Patriot’s Calendar” that included a post for Sunday’s Brock’s Bar & Grill opening. It also helped spread the word about a Monday afternoon rally that attracted dozens of people to Farm Boy, a Thurston County drive-thru and sit-down restaurant facing $183,141 in state Department of Labor & Industries penalties for 19 days of indoor service that are deemed to be willful violations of state rules.
Farm Boy employees on Monday were serving people inside a modest wood-frame restaurant building, which had blinds drawn down over the windows. A sign said, “Enter at own risk.”
“I stop keeping track [of the fines] because I’m not paying them,” said Brian Robbins, Farm Boy’s owner. Robbins said that his actions were “strictly about survival,” to avoid laying off his workers. In a brief speech urged “all small businesses to open — do it today.”
Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for Gov. Jay Inslee, said indoor dining at restaurants creates a higher risk for COVID-19 transmission. “We are at a serious point in the pandemic where medical systems threaten to be overwhelmed,” he said. “To save lives, we made the painful decision to temporarily close indoor dining. We take no enjoyment in it, but it was the right thing to do based on the science of the virus.”
The movement’s tactics this fall have included singling out state L & I staff for harassment. One employee involved in an investigation of indoor service by Spiffy’s Restaurant & Bakery in Chehalis. His name and age were publicized, and protesters appeared outside his home, according to The Daily Chronicle.
The efforts to go after the investigators have prompted L & I to stop putting staff names on orders of immediate restraint, according to Tim Church, an L & I spokesman, who said that Spiffy now faces $202,419 in penalties.
“There have been protests at homes a few different times. Nasty voice mails and emails. All sorts of things,” Church said.
In Lewis County, Spiffy’s efforts to stay open have drawn support from Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza, who said in a December interview posted on Facebook that he had been a customer of the restaurant for more than 30 years. “ … We need to stand up as conservatives and as Republicans, we need to stand up for our constitutional rights and say enough is enough … Don’t be a sheep.”
The movement’s support from some local law enforcement and politicians is welcomed by Joey Gibson, founder of Patriot Prayer. Gibson has been active in both Oregon and Washington.
“People just need to stay open. If they want to start throwing people in jail, I mean, they can try, but that’s not going to work out to the state’s favor because that’s just going to have more people rise up,” Gibson said.
Rallies against restrictions
Gibson was one of the featured speakers at a Salem rally held on a rainy, gray New Year’s Day in Salem. This event drew several hundred people, including contingents of Proud Boys, some armed, carrying cans of bear spray and wearing ballistic vests.
Two weeks earlier, during a rally against COVID-19 restrictions at a one-day special session of the Oregon Legislature, some protesters smashed glass doors at the Capitol building and an altercation became physical as those who entered the building were asked to leave by Oregon State Police troopers, the Salem Statesman Journal reported.
There were no efforts to force entry into the Capitol. The event was organized by Oregon Women for Trump, who combine a fierce loyalty to the president with a disdain for COVID-19 rules. At this rally, there was also antipathy toward the COVID-19 vaccines, which drew boos when mentioned by a speaker.
“I myself am not going to take one, and most of the people I know will not,” said Kathy Elgin.
Elgin has flown back to Washington, D.C., to participate in demonstrations there in support of the president. Despite all this travel, and not wearing masks during the outdoor events, Elgin said she has not come down with COVID-19.
She said she does, however, take hydroxychloroquine, a drug that President Trump once said he took to fend off the infection but that the Food and Drug Administration has concluded is not an effective treatment.
During a roughly 2-mile march from the Salem Capitol building to Mahonia Hall, the governor’s residence, protesters occasionally broke out in chants that hurled obscenities at Oregon Gov. Kate Brown as well as antifa, anti-fascists from the left, some of whom had organized their own small event in Salem on New Year’s Day.
Some of the protesters unfurled a huge American flag that they stretched in front of the Oregon State Police troopers who guarded the entryway. In front of the flag, one man held up a sign that said, “Well-regulated militia — sign up!”
One speaker denounced a fake pandemic. Another declared, “We are on the brink of civil war,” prompting someone in the crew to remark, “And we’ve got the guns.”
Packed bar, few masks
At the Sunday event in Woodland, Brock’s owner, Merwin, said in a Facebook post there would be good food, good drinks and a live band. By 2 p.m., dozens of people were inside the bar as football games and Fox News played on overhead televisions.
A handwritten sign posted on the entry door said, “L & I No entry unless you have a warrant.”
Church, the L & I spokesperson, said that investigators ask for permission to go on the premises, and if denied can get a warrant. He noted that any enforcement action on COVID-19 rules involving bars would come from the state Liquor and Cannabis Board.
Few people wore masks, but that did not appear to be a deterrence to supporters.
Several just outside the front door said they had already tested positive for COVID-19. They said they had not gotten very ill, and it wasn’t a big deal for them. They thought it was unfair that people would be allowed to fly in airplanes, and shop in big-box stores and not eat inside in their local restaurants. Nationwide, more than 350,000 people have died from the virus.
One of them was a friend of Andy Anderson, a 73-year-old Air Force veteran from Vancouver, who was outside Brock’s. Just a few weeks earlier, he had helped to bury the man, who had underlying conditions. Still, he felt the COVID-19 restrictions had gone too far.