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Car-bound protesters call for a plan to reopen Philadelphia

They were greeted near City Hall by counterprotesters who were on foot and aimed to stop the caravan.

Protesters rallying to reopen Philadelphia drove around City Hall repeatedly Friday.
Protesters rallying to reopen Philadelphia drove around City Hall repeatedly Friday.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The protests against the government-mandated business closures that have taken place across the country came to Philadelphia on Friday, as several dozen people drove their cars repeatedly around City Hall, creating a chorus of honking and snarling traffic.

The caravan started in South Philadelphia and was led north on Broad Street by a pickup truck with a flag promoting President Donald Trump’s reelection in the bed. Other cars had American flags poking out the windows and signs reading “Reopen PA now!” and “Working Lives Matter.”

The point of the rally, organizers said, was to get city officials to lay out a timeline for reopening businesses, houses of worship, and other establishments forced to close to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. At least 3,600 Pennsylvanians have died of complications related to COVID-19.

The group, titled “ReOpen Philadelphia,” planned the action for Friday, the day 24 counties in northern and western Pennsylvania are moving to the first phase of reopening. Richard Collins, a small-business adviser who lives in Center City, said he joined the protest on behalf of the nail salons and restaurants he works with.

“Thirty percent to 40% will never reopen again. I mean, this is crazy,” Collins said from his car.

» READ MORE: Philly small businesses are ready to reopen. But when will the city give the go-ahead?

The vehicles were greeted at City Hall by counter-protesters, some of whom attempted to halt the traffic. About five people with the organization Refuse Facism, which regularly organizes anti-Trump rallies, used their cars to block traffic and held a “Trump Pence Out Now” banner.

Some cars hopped curbs to get around them; other protesters left their vehicles and tried to push them out of the way. Two pedestrians threw hamburger buns and a sausage link into the mass of honking cars, while another man tried to grab the banner. The brief confrontation ended when police intervened.

Organizers encouraged the participants in the rally to remain in their cars, and they generally did so, save for a handful who carried signs and flags around City Hall. Daniel J. Maher and Curt Kaufmann stood with a “Trump 2020” flag and said they support reopening the city as soon as possible. They were not wearing masks.

“We think this is all hyped up," said Maher, 73, a retired SEPTA worker.

“If we are going to win the war, we are going to suffer some casualties," said Kaufmann, 69, who also is retired. “We need to go back to work.”

And between the protesters and counterprotesters were Philadelphians walking in the light rain near Broad Street, mostly masked and taking in the commotion.

Derek Hawkins, a cardiovascular perfusionist, was walking home from work in his scrubs when he passed the protesters honking their horns on South Broad Street. Hawkins, who said there are multiple COVID-19 patients in his unit, called the protest “absurd.”

“As it is right now, we hardly have any beds for patients, and if [the city] were to reopen right now, all hell would break loose,” said Hawkins, 27. “The last thing we need right now is a stronger second wave.”

Mike Hess, a 36-year-old computer programmer, watched the caravan pass City Hall and said, “This is lunacy.” He’s unemployed, but said he doesn’t think Philadelphia is ready to reopen: “You can’t go to CVS and buy hand sanitizer."

» READ MORE: Here’s who’s behind ‘reopen’ rallies planned for Friday at Philadelphia City Hall

Rallies and protests, some in cars and some outside them, have taken place at government buildings across the country. Two protests have been held in Harrisburg, including one in late April that drew hundreds of participants. Several Republican lawmakers spoke at the event and called on Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, to ease restrictions.

Wolf said Friday that he understands the frustrations of business owners who rallied in Philadelphia, but believes it’s misdirected.

“The frustration has to be directed at the real enemy here," he said. “It’s the virus. It’s not the regulation.”

» READ MORE: Here’s how low Philly’s case count has to be for the state to consider reopening Southeastern Pa.

Mayor Jim Kenney has said the city is working with state and regional leaders to determine how places in the city can safely reopen. He said data on the spread of the virus, not economic concerns, will dictate when the stay-at-home order will be lifted.

“We are not going to sacrifice people’s lives," Kenney said in a virtual news conference Wednesday.

Kenney and much of his administration were not in City Hall as the cars circled the building. The mayor on Friday delivered remarks at a funeral service for Sgt. James O’Connor IV, a Philadelphia police officer fatally shot in March while on duty.

Staff writers Julia Terruso, Allison Steele, Erin McCarthy, and Oona Goodin-Smith contributed to this article.