Reopen Delaware rallies in Rehoboth Beach

A Storm the Beach rally participant, left, holds an American flag as organizer Chris Roe places his hand over his heart at the Rehoboth Beach Bandstand on Saturday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

REHOBOTH BEACH — More than a hundred people attended a peaceful “Storm the Beach” rally on Saturday at the Rehoboth Bandstand to protest state restrictions on beaches, schools, and businesses related to COVID-19.

Protesters gathered at the bandstand at noon, many touting hand-made signs and waving American flags. Most protesters in attendance did not wear face masks or attempt to keep a six-foot distance from others.

Reopen Delaware, a local group advocating to immediately roll back the state’s COVID-19 restrictions, many in place since mid-March, posted on its website on May 7 its plans to “storm” Rehoboth Beach to protest the beach closure. Reopen Delaware also organized a smaller protest in Wilmington on May 1, but is separate from the group “Delawareans Against Excessive Quarantine”, which organized the Dover rally also on the same date.

After Reopen Delaware members released their plans to protest, town officials announced on Tuesday that Rehoboth Beach would allow walking and exercising starting on Friday. Then on Thursday, Gov. Carney released a statement announcing the opening of the Rehoboth boardwalk and beach on May 22 for in-state residents, requiring people to wear masks on the boardwalk and maintain a 6-foot distance on the beach for people who aren’t in the same household.

State officials still require that out-of-state visitors shelter in place for 14 days before visiting the beaches or boardwalk.

Rally organizer Richard Bishop of Wilmington said that Reopen Delaware takes some credit for the state’s decision to re-open beaches on May 22.

“We can’t take total credit because we know that there were citizens that wrote letters in support and called in to the Rehoboth meeting on Tuesday,” Mr. Bishop said. “We were just one of the voices, but I do believe that we were a voice, and a loud voice.”

A rally participant raises his arms in triumph as he defies the no-swimming rule at Rehoboth Beach.

Some rally attendees expressed pleasure with the state’s decision to move forward with re-opening in a broad sense, but many think the pace is too slow with too many restrictions. Rally attendee Kim Luton said she worries about local businesses closing from financial hardship that state restrictions have caused.

“We’re looking for a full re-opening,” Ms. Luton said. “We need to get businesses back to work. Small business is the backbone of Delaware, and we’re seeing more and more small businesses saying they’re not going to make it.”

Rally organizers invited several guests to speak at Saturday’s event, including Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Lauren Witzke, among other local political candidates. Speakers led chants to rally the crowds, asking protesters, “Whose house? Whose streets? Whose beach?” Frequent chants of “U.S.A.” rang out throughout the event.

To end the event, Mr. Bishop led the remaining crowd of about 20 people onto the beach once the speakers finished. Some protesters jumped in the ocean or set up chairs, despite state restrictions prohibiting any beach activity other than walking or exercising. Rehoboth Beach Police lined the avenue to keep a close eye on protesters throughout the rally, but did not interfere. Delaware State Police, including the agency’s Mounted Patrol Unit, stationed along the boardwalk and beach.

Rehoboth Beach Police Chief Keith Banks said Reopen Delaware was compliant with the city’s requirements for obtaining event permits and following safety protocols.

“At the end of the day, we want to support everyone’s right to assembly and free speech, and give them that opportunity in a safe environment,” Banks said.

Police roped off all areas surrounding the bandstand to protect the rally from counter protesters, who were rumored to attend. Despite this, the rally was met with very little opposition from police or counter protesters.

Michelle Murphy prays with others during the Storm the Beach rally.

When asked if he felt concerned about the possibility of opening beaches causing further spread of COVID-19, Mr. Bishop said he did not think it would cause a larger outbreak.

“Going forward, the governor should have a contingency plan in place, should we start to see a backwards or negative trend. And that should be communicated to the people so it’s not such a surprise,” Mr. Bishop said.

Some protesters echoed the lack of concern, including rally attendee Kathleen Migliaccio of Milton, who said she worked at an internal medicine practice for 41 years.

“[COVID-19] is totally overblown,” Ms. Migliaccio said. “I went through the bird flu, the swine flu, and Legionnaires disease, and I never got sick. I don’t intend to get sick here.”

Other protesters cited financial troubles related to business closures as their reason for attending. Matt Weiner, rally attendee and general manager of the Zelky’s arcade, said his business has been hurt in many ways by the state’s indefinite closure of boardwalk arcades.

Fired-up rally-goers prepare to storm the beach.

“We have no money coming in. All of our employees are laid off, a lot of them are unable to collect unemployment and didn’t receive stimulus checks,” Mr. Weiner said. “Realistically, the 75 people that we employ every season, those people are going to be suffering this summer.”

Mr. Weiner said he worries about Zelky’s future if the arcades cannot open this summer.

“We’ve been here for 35 years, and we’re realistically hoping that we’re going to be able to make it for another season and not have to close by order of the governor,” he said.

Reopen Delaware is not stopping at storming the beach, according to Mr. Bishop. He said Reopen Delaware will focus next on lifting the out-of-state visitor quarantine, amongst other efforts.

“We’re not done. It doesn’t end with the beaches,” he said.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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