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Protests mark growing unrest with California stay-home order

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Californians weary of stay-at-home orders that have left millions unemployed staged displays of defiance Friday, with hundreds of flag-waving protesters gathering at the Capitol and along a famed Southern California beach, while a sparsely populated county on the Oregon border allowed diners back in restaurants and reopened other businesses.

While much of the state's population remained behind closed doors to deter the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Gavin Newsom acknowledged the building anxiety while repeatedly teasing the possibility the state could begin relaxing some aspects of the restrictions next week.

“We are all impatient,” the governor said during his daily briefing, adding “We have to be really deliberative on how we reopen this economy.”

Newsom noted the state just passed the grim marks of 50,000 confirmed infections and 2,000 deaths but that hospitalization statistics are heading in a better direction and that has him hopeful.

“We can screw all that up. We can set all that back by making bad decisions," he said. “All of that works because people have done an incredible job in their physical distancing.”

In Sacramento, as police lined steps outside the Capitol, protesters waved signs that said “Defend Freedom” and broke into “U-S-A” chants, most eschewing face masks intended to deter spread of the virus. A small plane circled overhead, displaying a banner carrying an image of Newsom's face and the slogan, “End his tyranny.”

Joe Ranciato from Roseville, California, showed up to the protest inside a homemade “socially distancing cage,” made with plastic pipes and duct tape.

“I’m really fed up with what’s going on,” said Ranciato, 58. “I don’t like my freedom to be put in jeopardy.”

There were about a dozen organized rallies in cities including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.

In downtown Huntington Beach, known for its world-renowned surf break, protesters swarmed the streets, backing up traffic for at least a mile along Pacific Coast Highway. A day earlier, Newsom ordered all beaches in Orange County to close temporarily, after thousands last weekend sprawled on the sand in Huntington Beach and nearby Newport Beach.

People waved American flags from their car windows and carried signs reading “Open Cali now.” A plane buzzed overhead with a sign reading “Fire gruesome Newsom! Open California.”

While the beach was officially closed by Newsom's order, people continued to walk on the sand and on a popular bike trail in a park overlooking the shoreline.

On the state's northern end, rural Modoc County, home to about 9,000 people, became the first to defy the state's shutdown orders.

The county is “moving forward with our reopening plan,” said Heather Hadwick, the county's deputy director of emergency services, who added that the county has no reported COVID-19 cases.

Hadwick said the county had not heard from the governor about its reopening plan, but she asserted it aligns with Newsom’s indicators for reopening. Schools were not opening Friday, but it was an option for districts that can accommodate preventative measures, she said.

“We are utilizing his guidance of those plans, and we have zero cases,” she wrote. “Our residents were moving forward with or without us. We really needed to create guidelines for them so that they could do this in the safest way possible.”

At Country Hearth Restaurant and Bakery in the small town of Cedarville, three customers came in for breakfast, general manager Janet Irene said. She said her regular customers had been very cooperative with orders that had allowed her to only serve takeout since March.

“Since we’re a sit-down restaurant, people were constantly asking to be able to sit in the restaurant, and it was really, really difficult during this time to deny that," she said.

The county had notified Newsom of its plans and never heard back from him. His office did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Elsewhere, a variety of businesses from restaurants to hairstylists in rural and more populated areas have opened their doors in individual acts of defiance.

The moves underscore Newsom's challenge as the state enters its seventh week under stay-at-home orders, with only businesses deemed essential allowed to operate. Gyms, bars, shopping malls, restaurant dining rooms and sports arenas all remain shuttered.

Newsom hinted that change was coming soon. He has previously outlined a phased approach in which the economy would gradually return to normal.

But at the same time he warned of troubling signs, including a lack of testing in rural areas that might be concealing a lurking threat from the virus. He recognized the right of residents to protest, saying he welcomed diverse viewpoints, but also warned that crowding posed a health threat.

Newsom also confirmed the obvious: With its once-roaring economy in shackles and millions jobless, the state will face a funding shortfall that will run into billions of dollars.

“Billions in surplus, in just weeks, tens of billions of deficit,” he said.

Police across the state appear to have taken a largely hands-off approach with protesters, despite the fact they were violating stay-at-home requirements and not following physical distancing recommendations. The fear is the virus can be spread in close quarters by people who don't known they've contracted it.

Newsom, a Democrat, has earned bipartisan support for many of his actions during the outbreak. However, his beach closure was condemned as political overreach by Republican lawmakers, especially those in Orange County, where the GOP hopes to regain significant ground lost to Democrats in recent elections.

“At a time when California is granting early release to high-risk sex offenders and other dangerous inmates due to COVID-19 concerns, the implicit threat to punish beachgoers and surfers who violate the order is absurd,” Republican state Sen. Patricia Bates said.

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Blood reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press reporters Amy Taxin in Huntington Beach, Kathleen Ronayne and Cuneyt Dil in Sacramento, John Antczak and Stephanie Dazio in Los Angeles, Olga R. Rodriguez, Janie Har and Juliet Williams in San Francisco contributed reporting.