A woman dressed in red white and blue with a sign that reads “I’d rather practice dangerous freedom than practical slavery” parks near the community center and walks up to the grassy lawn outside Frisco City Hall where a crowd is gathering.
It’s a beautiful Saturday morning for a peaceful assembly, with unbroken blue sky above the America flags members of the Open Texas Facebook group have brought. They gather, many in MAGA hats, setting down lawn chairs in the shades, and milling in the grass in front of the podium, positioned right in front of City Hall. Though Open Texas, which hosted the event, requested social distancing, it isn’t observed or enforced. People are crowded close together to demand that the state reopen—today.
A tall, thin man in a suit and a Trump mask wanders through the crowd with “Free the People” sign. He stops frequently for pictures. The signs are everywhere, waving as everyone waits for the speakers to begin: “The word ‘pandemic’ is just the word ‘Dem’ surrounded by ‘panic,’” “Make 1984 fiction again,” “Your opinion and fear does not erase what the Constitution says.”
At 3 p.m., three people walk onto the platform, and Michelle Smith, an admin of the group, steps up to the microphone. “Good afternoon Patriots,” she greets the large crowd.
Two weeks ago, Open Texas didn’t exist. Now it’s almost 50,000 strong. They are holding rallies across the state, calling for an immediate end to social-distancing and shelter-in-place orders, and for healthy Texans to return to work.
“We are a united group of Texas that stand for the vulnerable and allowing the healthy to get back to work now,” the group claims on its Facebook page. “We must restart the economic engines of Texas now. Texans are losing our small businesses, which contribute to 40% of our economy.”
Founder Grant Byum came up with the idea, as fellow admin Michelle Smith explains, because they and the other admins felt that those people who wanted to end the quarantine and get Texas back to work didn’t have a voice.
“We were getting [told], ‘You must want to kill grandma if you want to go back to work,’” Smith says. “Well, I’m a grandma, I don’t want to die.” She laughs. “We are unified in saying all Texas business is essential. We also believe that Texans should get back to work today. We also believe that if you have a compromised immune system, if you’re sick, or you’re afraid to go out, we support your right to stay home.”
Though there are plenty who still believe COVID-19 is a “hoaxademic,” as a woman at my local pet store put it, the founders of Open Texas don’t want it to be a spreader of conspiracy theories. Still, the page has become a hotbed of conspiracies. There is friction between some group members who call for reason and reopening, and those who are calling the pandemic things like a “desperate attempt at the cost of all Americans to destroy President Trump” and a step on “our way to the extremism of the Holocaust.”
“I am not seeing a lot of moderate opinions here either,” one person comments. “But every voice needs to be heard, even if based on feelings rather than facts.”
Around 100 people showed up to mingle in the grass, shake hands, and listen to speakers who discussed Open Texas’ perspective. On their Facebook page, they projected that 400 people would show up and also claimed Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney was going to give a statement.
Cheney didn’t speak, and according to Dana Baird-Hanks, Frisco’s Director of Communications, he never intended to give a statement.
“We’re aware of the event planned for this Saturday in front of Frisco city hall,” Baird-Hanks wrote in April 24 email on Cheney’s behalf. “Our ordinances align with the Governor’s orders. We’re encouraged by the Governor’s plan to ‘Reopen Texas’. Our ultimate goal is to move forward and ‘Reopen Frisco’ as soon as possible while providing our business community guidance to help keep our residents, businesses and visitors safe and healthy.”
In short, the word from the admins is that they believe COVID-19 is a true danger, but that the economic ramifications are worse. They even invited both a doctor and a dentist to speak on their behalf.
Doctor Stuart Spitzel, who has been riding around on a Segway, discusses the Hippocratic oath he has taken, “First do no harm,” and explains that he would not be there at all if he thought reopening Texas would do more harm than closing it has. He also acknowledged that COVID-19-related deaths have occurred, particularly those in the field of healthcare. (At some rallies, members of the healthcare community have showed up in counter-protest, wearing their scrubs, but none of them arrived in Frisco.)
Though the threat of COVID-19 is real, and it is very contagious, Dr. Spitzel says, it shouldn’t be up to a politician to decide who is essential and who is not. “If you don’t believe that everyone is essential, then you’re a socialist,” he concludes.
While rallies of this kind are expected in Dallas, to see one in Frisco—one that Open Texas predicted would be their biggest yet—is more surprising. The government in Collin County has been notably reluctant to close the county. Collin County Judge Chris Hill was the only county judge in the region to order a shelter-in-place without ordering nonessential businesses to close. He has also been vocal in favor of reopening. On April 24, he shared on his Facebook an open letter to Gov. Abbott, advocating for reopening.
“It’s time for Texas families to get back to work,” Hill wrote. “In doing so, we can successfully address both challenges facing Texas today. If we ignore either threat at the expense of the other, we all lose.”
The members of the Open Texas rally are not just rallying for Collin County, but for our neighbors just south, which could be why the speaker who is greeted with the most enthusiasm is Shelley Luther, the owner of Dallas-based Salon A la Mode. Last week, Luther made national headlines for reopening her salon despite the stay-at-home order that lasts until April 30. No one here is more beloved than she is.
When she steps up to the microphone, a chant starts up in a corner, “Shelley for Mayor.”
“We needed a hero,” a lone voice shouts.
“I’m not anyone special,” Luther says. “I just know that I have rights. You have rights to feed your children and make income and anyone that wants to take away those rights is wrong.” Her father, she continues, was in the military. “He did not leave our family when we were little and barely see us growing up for this crap to happen.”
She describes her experience opening her shop despite the city ordinance, and how Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins—his name incites a wave of booing—sent over two police officers to request that she close down.
“And I said hell no,” she shouts over the applause.
She holds up a piece of paper, the cease and desist order from the judge, who’s also known as “Dictator Jenkins” on the group’s Facebook page, and to the cheering crowd, she tears up the letter, throws it into the crowd, and yells, “Come and get it. I will not shut my salon.”
Some of the spectators bend down, collecting pieces of the order like souvenirs.
“Where is Jenkins going to get his hair cut?” someone shouts.
“Jenkins, we know your hair is dyed and you don’t have roots,” Luther jokes.
But it’s her ending statement that is most powerful, setting off a frenzy of chants to reopen the state. “We’re all American and all essential. They can’t do anything if we open now.”
Today, Abbott is expected to give further details on his plans for the next phase of easing current COVID-19 restrictions, which expire Thursday.