FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Protesters upset with the pace of Kentucky’s economic reopening risk accelerating the coronavirus outbreak by flouting health guidelines and send a “message of hate” by waving Confederate flags at rallies, Gov. Andy Beshear said Tuesday.
The Democratic governor, who has shown a calm response throughout the turmoil, offered some of his harshest criticism yet of his detractors. It came the same day that a group of protesters sued him, arguing his pandemic measures infringed on their right to protest at the state Capitol.
Beshear said he supports the right of others to speak out against his actions, but said protests need to be conducted safely. Rally participants were encouraged to take off face masks and to ignore social distancing guidelines meant to contain the virus, he said at his daily briefing.
“If you’re a leader organizing that rally, shouldn’t you want the people that are there to be safe?" he said. “If you’re the one leading the rally, there are people that agree with you that you're trying to marshal toward your cause. Shouldn’t you want them to not be spreading this virus?
“My concern is so many people who are leading these rallies don’t believe this thing is real,” he said.
A recent rally drew hundreds of protesters to the Capitol steps. Protesters held signs calling for Beshear to “unlock Kentucky” and waved U.S. flags. A speaker encouraged people to take off their masks. Video from media outlets showed at least two Confederate flags in the crowd.
“I guess you can do that, it’s your right of free speech," Beshear said about the Confederate flags. “But it’s really wrong and it sends a message of hate to too many people that are out there. I don’t think it’s right to be showing white supremacy signs here on the Capitol grounds.”
A small band of protesters interrupted one of Beshear’s coronavirus briefings in April. Protesters could be heard shouting outside the Capitol room where the briefings are shown on statewide TV and live-streamed on the internet.
In the newest lawsuit against Beshear, four men are asking a federal judge to strike down the governor's orders keeping protesters away from Capitol grounds. Their suit is the latest challenging Beshear’s executive powers during the coronavirus outbreak.
The men are organizing a protest at the Capitol later this month but said they “reasonably fear prosecution." They also attended a rally earlier this month at the statehouse. State officials have issued guidelines that relocate protesters to a nearby parking lot. Beshear has said there was a lack of social distancing at some of the protests.
The lawsuit asks a judge to permanently prohibit state officials from enforcing orders that keep protesters away from the Capitol.
Last week, a federal judge ruled that Beshear’s mass gathering order violated the First Amendment rights of a Nicholasville church that challenged the ban. U.S. District Judge Greg Van Tatenhove said churches could hold in-person services as long as worshippers follow guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Beshear had planned on waiting until May 20 to reopen churches to in-person services.
Kentucky embarked Monday on a wave of business reopenings. Auto and boat dealerships resumed in-person service. Also reopening were manufacturing, construction, office-based businesses, pet grooming and photography businesses. Horse racing tracks can now operate but only with essential employees and no fans, with revenue generated through online wagering.
The state is allowing retail to reopen May 20 and restaurants to open at a third of capacity starting May 22. Salons and tattoo parlors will reopen May 25 and fitness centers and movie theaters on June 1.
As the restarts are phased in, Beshear said it’s crucial to follow other health guidelines.
“Our reopening of our economy is tenuous, it’s fragile," Beshear said Tuesday. “It can be upended by a spike in cases at any time, and that’s true all across the United States, not just here.”
Meanwhile, the governor reported 10 more virus-related deaths in Kentucky, bringing the state’s total death count to at least 321 since the pandemic began. Beshear also reported more than 190 coronavirus cases Tuesday, raising the statewide total to more than 6,850 cases.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, even death.
A second Kentucky youngster is suffering from a new syndrome associated with COVID-19, the governor said. The new patient is a 16-year-old who is doing well but is in the hospital as a precautionary measure, said Dr. Steven Stack, Kentucky’s public health commissioner. The other patient, a 10-year-old, remains critically ill but is showing signs of improvement, Stack said.