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story.lead_photo.caption Hundreds of Missourians gathered Tuesday on the Capitol's north side for a rally to get the attention of Gov. Mike Parson, imploring him to reopen the state for business. Numerous business owners, farmers and interested residents showed support for the movement. While elected officials and organizers addressed the crowd, other participants drove multiple times around the Capitol, honking their horns and waving signs and flags out the windows. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.
For more news about the COVID-19 coronavirus, access the News Tribune Health section.

As Missouri Gov. Mike Parson prepares to reopen the state's economy early next month, hundreds of people outside the state Capitol on Tuesday protested what the government has done so far to try to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Protesters of all ages participated while carrying American flags.

There were lots of messages on display by the protesters, including frustration with the pace of the economy being reopened — or that it was closed at all — and concerns about government infringement on liberties: "Poverty kills too! Reopen MO;" "Freedom is essential! Save our economy!;" "Governor! Start this economic engine now!!;" "No more forced social distancing;" "Don't tread on me;" "Fear GOVT-20 more than COVD-19;" and "Make '1984' fiction again."

There were also flags and clothing with campaign slogans of President Donald Trump, some references to pandemic-related conspiracy theories about billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, and a group of three men who showed up visibly armed with military-style rifles.

Missouri Capitol Police and Jefferson City Police Department officers were among law enforcement monitoring the event, and officers spoke with the three armed men at one point.

Things appeared to go peacefully, though. Protesters on foot Tuesday marched down East Capitol Avenue from the Fountain of the Centaurs area north of the Capitol to the front of the Governor's Mansion on Madison Street. Others drove or rode in dozens of honking vehicles that circled the Capitol — cars, motorcycles, even a chartered yellow school-style bus that belonged to a church.

One red pickup truck had "Send bills to Parson" written in white on its back driver's side window. A much larger sign was mounted in the pickup bed, which stated "320,000 jobless. 1% of pop infected. This is tyranny. Liberate us."

Though not all unemployment claims filed have been COVID-19-related, in the weeks since and including the one that ended March 21, almost 340,000 Missourians have filed claims for unemployment, according to the state's Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. That's a massive increase from the claims numbering 2,700-4,700 in each of the preceding weeks of March and February.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 5,941 reported cases of COVID-19 in the state, with 189 people so far who had died from the disease, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

Dr. Randall Williams, director of DHSS, later on Tuesday said at a news conference that there is no estimate of how many people in the state have had COVID-19 but have not been tested for it, "but we're working to find that out."

Nikki Evers, of Eugene, was a Mid-Missourian among the protesters, and she said she hoped the state reopens earlier than May 4.

The date is the anticipated one given by Parson — dependent on how the pandemic develops in the coming weeks and how well the state can be prepared in terms of testing, hospitals' capacity, the supply of personal protective equipment and how well outbreaks can be predicted and tracked.

The current statewide stay-at-home order is in effect until May 3.

Evers said she runs a credit union but also owns a couple businesses that have had to shut down, and she's having to take out a private loan to get them back open again.

She is the organizer of one of the groups involved with Tuesday's rally, a Facebook group called "End the Stay - Governor Parson."

Evers wanted it to be enough to reopen the economy if people who are sick don't go to work or don't send sick children to school.

She's been helping elderly in-laws by shopping for them and said once her businesses open, people could call ahead and she would offer curbside service.

"Everybody needs to help each other," she added.

Williams said he wished it was as simple as sick people keeping away from work: "We are aware, the more we learn about this virus, there is an asymptomatic component to it," wherein people are probably capable of infecting other people two or three days before being most infectious, when symptoms such as coughing show.

Evers also wanted Parson to rescind the state of emergency Missouri has been under since March 13: "It gives local authorities less power," she said.

City and counties' health orders can be more strict than the state's, but it is true the state's order establishes a minimum level of social distancing and other measures that especially impact businesses deemed to be non-essential.

Evers called the governor defining what's essential and what's not "a form of discrimination."

The current statewide stay-at-home order uses federal guidance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in determining what is or is not an essential business.

Parson at the later news conference on Tuesday reiterated his discomfort with the power. When asked to walk Missourians through how decisions about essential status were made, he said the issue troubled him: "I think that was one of the biggest issues that I faced as governor, trying to select who those (essential or non-essential) people were.

"So many times when you hear that word 'non-essential business' or 'essential,' when that all first started — look, everybody was scared — there was a little bit of panic in there. We just started saying, 'OK, what is it we really need?' So we started to declare non-essential businesses and essential businesses," he said.

"For me, when we open back up, to me, everybody's essential. Every worker is essential," he added.

Parson anticipated that after May 3, "the majority of businesses, especially in the service area" — including restaurants, beauticians, barbershops, box stores — "will all be open — in our guidance, we'll give them the opportunity."

"The majority of Missourians are doing what they're being asked to do. We know that because we've seen the curve on the coronavirus. There's 6 million people in the state. Let's just be realistic about it; there's not going to be somebody out there separating somebody to make sure you're 6 feet apart all the time, everywhere you go," Parson added.

He said people will take the social distancing responsibility upon themselves, given concerns for their own safety.

"I think Missourians are going to step up to that challenge, but we're going to continue to recommend some sort of social distancing," he added.

While the Capitol protesters called Tuesday for the reopening of the economy, other groups issued statements or held events in support of public health measures.

Missouri Faith Voices in a statement urged "Governor Parson and our Missouri legislators to continue to follow the advice of our medical professionals and to preserve shelter in place," in addition to the expansion of paid sick and family leave, free testing and expanded absentee voting and voting by mail.

A counter-rally to the anti-lockdown protest at the Capitol was also hosted on Facebook Live by "Citizens for a Safe and Sound Missouri." The group reported the event had 200 live views, with 1,300 video views in total.

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