Virus Outbreak Ohio

Protesters gather outside of the Ohio State House in Columbus, Ohio, Monday, April 20, 2020, to protest the stay home order that is in effect until May 1.

Members of a Facebook group called Delawareans Against Excessive Quarantine, which has more than 4,000 members, are planning a rally in Dover next week, aimed at getting Governor John Carney to reopen the state immediately--even as the state sees increasing cases of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

One of the founders of the online group, Lisa Marie McCulley, of Middletown, said they're exercising their right to assemble and were inspired by protests in Michigan. 

Lisa Marie McCulley

Lisa Marie McCulley of Middletown, founder of Delawareans Against Excessive Quarantine Facebook group

"We're asking folks to decorate their cars with signs of patriotism and concern, with streamers, balloons, etc., and we're asking that everyone remain in their cars, but if they do walk, they social distance, keeping at least six feet apart--as our governor's requested us to do--and in groups of no more than 10 people, and we ask that people don't stop traffic and respect our men and women in blue. They should drive slowly, carefully," she said.  

McCulley said the group's members have been patient with the shutdown, which has lasted more than five weeks.

"We trusted our government and literally allowed for our civil liberties to be suspended. We don't wish to spread any illness; we know that there are people suffering from this virus and many other illnesses and afflictions. But folks are without jobs, and many people's businesses, family businesses, businesses that they have worked for decades to build up and be successful, they've had to lay off employees; their doors have been shut by the government. Some have no money coming in, no way to support their families."

She also expressed concern for battered women and abused children as well as those who suffer from addiction and mental health issues who are becoming more depressed by severe isolation.

"We believe those people matter, too."

Rob Arlett, a former Sussex County Councilman who ran for U.S. Senate, and runs President Trump's re-election campaign in Delaware, supports the endeavor.

"I think Delawareans specifically are very frustrated, as many of us--to include myself--have been mandated to shut our offices...though our incomes are essential, and I think that's part of the disconnect that our governor and other elected officials are forgetting...they have stricken our abilities to create an income and provide for our families."

University of Delaware epidemiologist Jennifer Horney said there are indirect health effects that result from any disaster. She points to the initial death toll in Hurricane Maria, in Puerto Rico, which was a few dozen people.

Jennifer Horney/UDel

Jennifer Horney, founding director and professor of the University of Delaware's epidemiology program.

"...Whether or not we count the hundreds, and possibly thousands, I think 3-to 4,000 people whose death is attributable to Hurricane Maria, but not because they directly drowned or directly killed by some impact of the storm. But if you don't have power or access to dialysis or access to hospital care--those are indirect  health effects. There certainly are indirect health effects from the stress, the mental health issues of being in your home from concerns about finances, and business...so those are harder to measure. And I think that they're not probably, comparable, on the same type of scale as COVID," said Horney.

Simultaneously, Arlett said government lacks the ability to support the industries it shut down.

"As evidenced by the SBA loans--Delaware is last in the country with regards to garnering those loans, and also our Department of Labor, meaning here in Delaware, is not equipped, technologically speaking to assist independent contractors, and people like myself and many others to apply for various things that the state says they have. They're saying it could be another, upwards of four to six weeks." 

A counter group rises

Robert Willson, of Dover, a health care worker on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Joe Trainor, of Wilmington, joined the Delawareans Against Excessive Quarantine group, and said they were quickly booted for speaking out against the group's ideals. So they teamed up to establish Delawareans Against "Delawareans Against Excessive Quarantine," which they said began as sort of a satirical movement, but has morphed into something more, gaining 900 members in just 36 hours.

Robert Willson

Robert Willson, founder of Delawareans Against "Delawareans Against Excessive Quarantine"

"We're not against the people here. Our basic goal is to be able to reopen the government safely, to be able to allow the people to come back out safely without contracting COVID-19. This is still a very deadly disease, it's still rampant in Delaware. The most important thing is to protect our people," said Willson. "We don't want to risk the first responders. We really want to educate and inform and try to have everyone come to a clear and concise decision on what is the most efficient way to reopen our government."

Delaware's death toll from COVID-19 stood at 71 at the time this article was published.

"...Which we mourn and we're sad about," McCulley  said. "Our mission is to support solutions that we can overcome this national crisis without putting Delawareans out of work and at catastrophic societal and economic impacts."

When asked whether Delaware's death toll would be higher without a shut down and social distancing practices in place, McCulley responded:

"Possibly. I'm not an expert. I'm just leading a group from Facebook. That is a possibility, and of course, we all consider that, but we are also wanting to consider the impact on people's livelihoods, on people who in danger now in their homes."

Carney has said any reopening will be a slow, gradual process, in line with what White House expert Dr. Anthony Fauci and local experts Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Division of Public Health, and Horney have recommended. While the decision rests with the states, President Donald Trump has issued Reopening America guidelines which call for downward trajectories of both positive cases and hospitalizations for a period of 14 days before beginning phase one of the reopening process: the reopening of some shuttered businesses like restaurants. Delaware has achieved neither yet.

"The most important thing is, we don't want to inundate our health care professionals," said Willson. "This disease is very deadly. I work in a job where if most of my patients, if they were to get it, they would not do well. So it is our job to make sure that they are safe--along with us, along with our families--because it's not just them that we deal with. We've got to come home too...and see our loved ones. This disease is nothing that I've ever seen before. It's scary, it really is...I'm actually afraid to go to work."

Arlett said there's two sides to the shutdown equation.

"Yes, there is a health problem and health issues. We all know somebody who's been in a hospital or still remains in the hospital....we all know our health care workers are out there doing what they do on a regular daily basis, and they need our continued support and prayers. And those lives matter in those hospitals, but so do the lives who are stuck at home...with massive depression, with no income, and desperation."

Willson believes reopening the government now would be disastrous.

"It's more than just me and Joe and everyone else. We really need to take into consideration the people who are most susceptible to this disease. It wouldn't be fair for us to just open up so somebody can get a haircut, and somebody else can get coronavirus and die."

Trainor, who was laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic, said the average Delawarean isn't qualified to make a decision on reopening.

"We elect officials, and there are people who go to schools for years and years and years, who work for the CDC and other organizations, who are much more qualified to tell us what the situation is and how best to handle it," he said. "So I don't feel like I have any more authority to tell people how things should go than the people who are demanding that everything open up and we go back to normal."  

McCulley believes the restrictions were an overreach from the beginning.

"We believe that our state should never have had these restrictions from the beginning, so we believe we should reopen our state, open all businesses, open all schools. Work with the legislative branch--that's a big message that our group is pushing for," she said. "I don't know what it's like to be governor; I can imagine that it's a very, very difficult job, and he is facing things that none of us can understand, but what we do understand is that the Constitution has to be upheld, and our rights need to be restored. We want our freedom back," said McCulley.

Governor Carney, at a news conference last week, called protests like the one planned by Delawareans Against Excessive Quarantine "not helpful."

"Protests aren't helpful at this point in time when we're trying to make very difficult decisions in uncharted waters, and I understand the sense of urgency behind that. I hear the anguish in the voices of people who want to go back to work, business owners who are looking at losing their business that they spent generations [building]...it hurts my heart," he said. "It also hurts my heart with each one of those Delawareans who've passed away as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. They're very difficult choices...the choices ahead of us, I think, are going to be harder than the choices behind us. Because you don't want to open a day too soon and be at risk of a rebound and have to close things that you've opened again. That just really is a bad thing. You don't want to do something that's going to put people at risk. You need to accomplish both--you need to establish a healthy community and a healthy business sector...we need to protect you, and we need to give you an opportunity to come back online." 

McCulley argues protests like the one she's organizing are helpful.

"We believe he's not listening, we want to be heard."

Trainor and Willson said they're looking at an online counter-protest, but are also trying to determine something more impactful.  

"You're going to have a lot of first responders that are going to have to be involved with [protests]...maybe we can...do a fundraiser, we can have some food for these guys because these men and women are going to be literally in lockstep with these other people--just as a thank you. We don't want to go out there with the protesters because that's not the goal....we're social distancing ourselves from them."

While Delaware's protest aims to promote social distancing, that hasn't happened in similar protests across the country, where large groups have gathered in states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Virus Outbreak Pennsylvania

Protesters demonstrate at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Monday, April 20, 2020, demanding that Gov. Tom Wolf reopen Pennsylvania's economy even as new social-distancing mandates took effect at stores and other commercial buildings. 

"These organizers are going to be able to corral these people to their cars and keep a safe distance? It's not going to happen," said Trainor. "You're not helping anybody. It's detrimental. It's going to set us back."

While it's unclear how many persons may show up to the protests, Horney said the potential for crowds is concerning.

"I think the evidence is pretty clear as to how this is spread, and to the type of close contact that we've been trying to avoid, so again, I think if you look at the data from Delaware for the last week, you'll see how we've been impacted by clusters associated with a poultry facility in southern Delaware. It doesn't take much to really move these numbers, so the last thing that we need is to take our eye off the ball of getting to the point, where need to be to start relaxing, because we're busy investigating a cluster associated with a rally. So anything that happens associated with that is going to take time away from getting systems set up that will prepare us to slowly reopen."

More testing needed to reopen

Governor Carney and public health experts have insisted more testing is needed before Delaware can begin to reopen.

So far, in Delaware, though testing has been reserved for those who are symptomatic, evidence has shown there's a large number of people who are asymptomatic nationwide and unknowingly spreading the virus. Per Centers for Disease Control recommendations, the Delaware Division of Public Health has recommended Delawareans wear a mask in public places where social distancing is a challenge--places like the grocery store--to protect others.

"You go to Wawa and get your free coffee [for first responders], you don't know who you're talking to. You don't know who's behind you getting that free coffee too, that could have it. It's a very deadly disease. This is why they are telling people to go out with masks, to go out covering their face, to not touch their face, to wash their hands, and it's so important to just follow those guidelines. Those guidelines are in place to protest us. The fact that people don't want to follow them is heartbreaking. We have people dying who might not necessarily need to."

McCulley said no one is telling anyone not to take steps to stay safe.

"It's our group's hope to recommend that everyone stay safe...but we don't believe the government has the right to tell you what you can and cannot do," she said.

Horney said the reopening process will be gradual, with fire codes enforced to ensure limits on gatherings in businesses.

"You shouldn't be looking forward to having any big concerts or events happening. I think those will continue to be postponed or canceled for the time being," she said.

Horney said more testing will determine how many people have antibodies--or evidence in one's blood of a prior infection with this virus--which can protect them from contracting the virus.

"For many diseases that we get, if we have gotten them and then recovered, we'll have some level of protection for some amount of time afterwards from getting reinfected. For seasonal flu, we see about a 40-week immunity that carries over so you tend not to get...the same strain of the flu twice in one flu season, typically."

She pointed to research in Santa Clara County, California, where population-based testing recently determined a greater amount of asymptomatic cases than was previously understood.

"We may find out as we start slowly opening, we have a good proportion of the population with some antibody protection," she said. 

Other population-based testing is happening in places like Miami-Dade County, Florida; San Miguel County, Colorado; and Los Angeles, California. The National Institutes of Health has a similar effort underway as well.

"I do believe that there are a lot of asymptomatic infections in the population, even though there's only been a few population-based studies done. They're pretty consistent in showing that large percentages of people have been asymptomatic ally infected," she said.

Horney hopes to see population-based testing in Delaware over the next few weeks so the state can get a better handle on its true coronavirus case counts.

"There are states that are beginning to test entire groups of people like all of their health care workers, all of their government employees, and so I think there was initially some interest from the New Castle County Executive for testing large proportions of the population here. Oregon State is doing some population testing...as we test more people we're going to have higher numbers because we do know that this disease does infect a number of people that are asymptomatic, so people will be looking to understand the movement in the case numbers as the requirements for testing change."  

But Horney cautioned it's unclear how long antibody protection lasts.

"It's going to be a rolling relaxation as we see how the cases respond to that," she said. "We need more data...and that's mostly in Asia, and we don't know if maybe their negative test was a false negative, so we really don't know, exactly, the trajectory of what's happening after recovery."

But once a reopening gets underway, McCulley said even if Delawareans remain hesitant to visit businesses due to the virus, it's their right.

"If folks are high-risk, they're concerned, or if they're fearful, then they have the freedom to make that choice for themselves. That's why we're Americans."

Delaware has yet to see a legal challenge to its shutdown. 

McCulley questioned Delaware's decision on what businesses were determined to be essential, calling the process confusing.

"When the state tells you it's safe to go to Walmart or Home Depot to buy paint, or to go to the liquor store and buy liquor, but it's too dangerous to go to the beach--it's not about your health. When the state shuts down millions of private business, but doesn't lay off a single government employee--it's not about your health. When the state prevents you from buying a self-serve coffee at the Royal Farms...but I can go to the vending machine lottery ticket sales in the same store--it's not about your health."

Trainor said the list of essential businesses stumped him as well.

"I thought essential was going to be like stores and medical, and first responder stuff. I thought we were going into, like, a serious shutdown, and then I realized restaurants were doing take-out. Well, that makes sense, not everybody can cook every night...I think, honestly...I was just like, 'I don't care.' The government can decide what's essential and what's not. Why do I care? I don't have to question every decision the government makes, and maybe that makes me some government sheep."

Never before had Delaware been tasked with deeming businesses essential or non-essential. Damian DeStefano, director of the Division of Small Business, told WDEL it was a "complicated" process of balancing necessity with public health for 300 industries.

The Delawareans Against Excessive Quarantine rally is happening Friday, May 1, 2020, at Legislative Hall from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. A separate group, Reopen Delaware, is hosting a rally that same day at the same time at the Carvel State Building in Wilmington.

A separate rally--the Rally to Reopen Delaware and Defend Our Constitutional Rights--is happening Wednesday, April 22, 2020 at 12 p.m.

"We're mourning the loss of all of our lives. All of our freedoms have been taken, and we just think this is extreme government overreach," said McCulley.