With many Orange County residents getting restless under public health orders to limit nonessential trips out in public to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, some are openly defying stay-at-home orders to hold protests out in public. CLICK here to see a related story.

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Huntington Beach Police officials estimated more than 100 people waving American flags and carrying signs supporting President Donald Trump, while criticizing California’s statewide lockdown, gathered in a cluster along Main St. and Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach on Friday.

The crowd began thinning at around 2:30 in the afternoon, and no arrests were made, according to Angela Bennet, a public information officer for the Huntington Beach Police Dept.

Around noon, police officers looked on as protestors chanted “USA!” and waved signs telling people to defy the “fascist lockdown” and banners in support of Trump’s 2020 presidential reelection campaign. One sign called the virus, known as COVID-19, “a lie.” 

There have been more than 1,500 cumulative cases of the virus to date in Orange County, and it’s killed 28 people as of Friday.

The protest in Huntington Beach started largely through social media, and as it gained traction the day before, the city’s police department took to Facebook urging people to continue following stay-at-home orders. 

“We are asking that everyone continues to follow these orders and maintain the recommended social distancing,” the post read. “We understand there are levels of frustration with the current situation but the health and safety of our community will continue to be our number one priority.”

A number of small businesses also plan on protesting next month, according to the department’s Facebook post. The city’s Police PIO, Bennett later said the department doesn’t know if that demonstration will happen in the city, but will “continue watching” for it.

In San Clemente a few days earlier, a dozen or so people rallied at a parking lot by the pier for what they called the “San Clemente Freedom March” — a similar protest to the stay-at-home order where people also waved around and wrapped themselves in American flags.

The protests in Huntington Beach and San Clemente came amidst reports of anti-lockdown protests from across the country, which have largely pushed anti-lockdown sentiments amplified by the president, who’s vocally encouraged such protests. 

In a YouTube video capturing the April 12 protest in San Clemente, a man identified by the uploader as the organizer, Alan Hostetter, said the protest wasn’t a “political rally.”

“This is not left versus right. This is not blue state versus red state or in support of a particular candidate,” Hostetter said toward the beginning of the video. “This is simply marching to regain our constitutional rights. Regaining our Americanism. Not walking around in fear.”

Jason Whitehead, a political science professor at California State University, State Long Beach, said the trend of protestors violating health guidelines to protest those guidelines “may be a clear case where the interests in public health and public safety outweigh the issues of public protestors.” 

He added if similar lockdown protests were to continue down the road, the ability of the government to curb those protests and enforce health separation guidelines — like 6 ft. social distancing — would be complicated, because the right to protest and practice free speech are sacrosanct in the U.S. Constitution.

“When you have a conflict between protesters and government policy shutting down protests, it usually goes in favor of the protestors,” he said in a phone interview.

But, he later added, the government would have a compelling reason for regulating protests along the lines of public health — as long as its actions aren’t targeted to a specific group.

The government “can always regulate the time, place and manner in which freedom of speech is exercised,” he said. “For example, you can’t protest on somebody’s front lawn — you got to be on the sidewalk … restrictions are generally allowed as long as the restriction itself is content neutral.”

Staff reporter Spencer Custodio contributed reporting.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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