BISMARCK — Fearing that continued economic shutdown will harm more people than the coronavirus, activists are planning a protest at the North Dakota Capitol on Monday, April 20, to demand an end to the business closures.
A group called Health Freedom North Dakota is behind the protest called “Put North Dakotans Back To Work.”
“We are responsible, common sense North Dakotans. Those who are at risk, ill or otherwise have concerns, can continue to self-isolate. Those who are healthy and at low-risk can continue to exercise voluntary social distancing within reason,” according to the protest’s Facebook page.
Plans for the protest began after Gov. Doug Burgum extended statewide business restrictions on Wednesday, April 15, the same day Republican legislators petitioned the governor to reopen the state for business as usual.
In Michigan on Wednesday, demonstrators caused gridlock after opposing state lockdown guidelines at the Capitol in Lansing. Many refused to wear masks or practice social distancing guidelines. Some waved Confederate flags while a group called the Michigan Liberty Militia carried rifles, according to news reports.
With more than 70 people so far planning to attend the North Dakota protest, and 486 others interested as of Thursday, organizers face an obstacle, said Jen Raab, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Management and Budget. She said no paperwork has been filed with her office related to the protest.
Organizers say they've filed a protest petition with the Bismarck Police Department.
“They’re not supposed to be having an event at the Capitol, or the Capitol grounds if they haven’t filled out the paperwork and submitted that and that is required 15 days before an event,” Raab said.
Unlike Fargo where Mayor Tim Mahoney has issued a stay-home directive to residents, Bismarck has only recommended people follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gatherings of more than 10 people are still legal, although discouraged.
Even if protesters went through proper channels to hold a protest, their petition would most likely be denied for the Capitol grounds at this time, Raab said.
“Back when this COVID thing started, we did post on our website that we’ve suspended tours and events, so even if they would have applied 15 days in advance, it wouldn’t have been approved. Even if they put it in today, I can’t say it would be approved,” Raab said.
Attempts to contact Bismarck police and the North Dakota Highway Patrol, which handles Capitol security, were unsuccessful Wednesday.
Health Freedom North Dakota was set up in Linton, N.D., as a nonprofit group in December 2019, according to the North Dakota Secretary of State's Office. Alexis Wangler is the group's principal, and an organizer behind the rally.
Wangler said a permit for the protest has been filed with the Bismarck Police Department. She said she wants the protest to be held Monday because she and other organizers believe continued shutdown extensions will hurt the state's economy.
“We are totally crippling our economies. Small businesses, people that I know and love, were working in their passions and now they’re told that they are ‘unessential.’ To me that’s just not right, and there are a lot of people I know who feel the same way,” she said.
“This is how we exercise our First Amendment right by showing North Dakotans and the nation that we want to get back to work and it is our right to work," she added. "If you’re sick, stay home, but let’s take this a little more seriously and look at what our numbers are.”
As of Thursday, 393 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in North Dakota; 14 were currently hospitalized; and nine had died, according to state figures.
Dustin Gawrylow, managing director of the North Dakota Watchdog Network and a former organizing member of the North Dakota T.E.A. Party Caucus, said he was thinking about joining the protest but changed his mind.
“Anyone who has organized a rally on the capital ground knows that you must be approved by the Capital Complex Facilities Management, and with the current executive orders in place banning large gatherings, this event will be broken up by the state Highway Patrol and/or other law enforcement officers," Gawrylow said.
“Either the organizers have no clue what they are doing, or they are intentionally trying to create a conflict to later portray themselves as victims,” Gawrylow continued. “This rally purports to be a conservative uprising against the shutdown of the economy, which is a legitimate discussion to be had — but if they plan to use the tactics that #OccupyWallStreet and #NoDAPL used to get attention, then this will backfire and give Bismarck and North Dakota a black eye.”