Supporters of reopening Philadelphia businesses will gather at City Hall on Friday, the day parts of northern and western Pennsylvania will begin a phased lifting of shutdown restrictions, to rally against mass closures aimed at mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.
Multiple groups are planning rallies set for the same time — some are small business owners in the city and workers who are sick of waiting for an unemployment check. Some also may be affiliated with the Philadelphia Proud Boys, a chapter of the self-described “Western chauvinist” organization that has been designated a hate group.
All are demanding that Mayor Jim Kenney lay out a plan to ease social distancing restrictions in the city, though it isn’t clear if the mayor has the authority to do so. It was Gov. Tom Wolf who issued an order shutting down all but “life-sustaining” businesses across the state.
“We hope Tom Wolf is watching,” Victor Della Barba, 39, of Drexel Hill, said, “because we’re angry at Harrisburg, too. But we’re just far away.”
Della Barba and a few others — including his mother, Jody, well known in South Philadelphia civic and political circles — created the group ReOpen Philadelphia and are plotting a caravan of cars that will drive at noon Friday from Broad Street and Oregon Avenue to City Hall in an event they dubbed a “gridlock rally.”
Victor Della Barba said the event is meant to be a Philadelphia version of protests that have taken place at state capitol buildings across the country, including Harrisburg in April, when hundreds of protesters decried Wolf’s mass closures. Organizers weren’t sure how many people to expect at the Philly event.
Jody Della Barba — who most recently helped plan large protests against a Kenney-backed supervised injection site in South Philly, which was ultimately put on hold indefinitely — said she and her son are encouraging participants to stay in their cars.
But they won’t be alone. Other Facebook groups demanding a relaxation of Philadelphia’s business restrictions have cropped up, including one planning an event called “Open Up Philly.” The event invitation says nothing about staying in cars and reads: “Bring flags, banners, signs, drinks and friends.”
On Tuesday, word started circulating online that the event was organized in part by the Philadelphia Proud Boys. The group said in an email sent after the initial publication of this story that they would be present at Dilworth Park at noon “to protest these outrageous, unlawful lock down decrees."
A person identified on social media as “Jesus Tsirhc,” one of the administrators of the Open Up Philly event, said via Facebook message that the group is "not the only ones fed up with not being allowed to work.” He said some people would rally in cars; some on foot.
“We’ve heard that a bunch of different groups are coming, including the Proud Boys,” he wrote. “We encourage everybody to join us Friday, especially patriots, and we’ve researched into the Proud Boys and checked their website and seen they are patriots.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the Proud Boys, founded in 2016, as a hate group — a move that prompted a lawsuit — and the Anti-Defamation League says the group “represent[s] an unconventional strain of American right-wing extremism.”
Victor Della Barba distanced himself from the Proud Boys, saying: “What are we going to do? Are we going to say ‘you guys can’t do it because we are?’ We’re not affiliated.”
Kenney said Wednesday that data on the spread of the coronavirus, and not economic concerns, will dictate when the city’s stay-at-home order will be lifted. He pointed to rising case counts in Florida, which has begun relaxing social distancing measures, and blamed the rush to reopen on President Donald Trump.
“We are not going to sacrifice people’s lives," Kenney said in a virtual news conference. "There’s no such thing as collateral lives. They’re all human beings. They’re all part of our country, state, and city, and we’re not going to sacrifice anybody intentionally.”
He added that whether he has the authority to supersede the governor’s order on business closures doesn’t matter, because the city is working in tandem with leaders in Harrisburg and the suburbs.
“We are in constant contact with them, with the governor’s office, on a regional basis, so that we’re all walking in the same direction,” he said.
Staff writer Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.