The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rural Virginia county officials pass resolution rejecting ‘tyranny’ of governor’s coronavirus restrictions

People stand in support of a resolution rejecting Gov. Ralph Northam’s coronavirus restrictions during a meeting Tuesday of the Campbell County Board of Supervisors. (Gregory S. Schneider/The Washington Post)

RUSTBURG, Va. — Nearly 100 people gathered in the Campbell County Board of Supervisors chamber outside Lynchburg this week, took off their face coverings and applauded an official resolution rejecting Gov. Ralph Northam's coronavirus restrictions.

“Free people have a duty to push back against these restrictions,” County Supervisor Charlie A. Watts II said during the Tuesday night hearing. Northam’s executive orders mandating the wearing of masks during the deadly pandemic, ordering restaurants to stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m. and limiting public gatherings to 25 people or fewer are “simply not the role of government in a free society,” Watts said.

The board in this deeply red county then voted unanimously in favor of a resolution declaring Campbell a “First Amendment sanctuary” — referring to the Bill of Rights guarantee of the freedom of assembly — and ordering local authorities not to enforce the Democratic governor’s mandates.

Campbell became the first Virginia locality to pass what some call a “nullify Northam” measure, but the idea is sweeping rural governments the way the “Second Amendment sanctuary” movement against gun control spread a year ago. Nearby Bedford considered a resolution last week that would have punished officials who tried to enforce the restrictions, including withholding funding from the sheriff and ordering the arrest of state agents.

Appomattox County is considering a similar resolution. Supervisor John Hinkle said via email: “No comment other than Appomattox County believes Gov. Northam is over reaching his authority.”

It comes at a time when conservative officials nationwide are rebelling against restrictions even as cases of the virus are surging. In Ohio, GOP state lawmakers are attempting to impeach Republican Gov. Mike DeWine over his efforts to contain the pandemic. A rural county in Michigan approved a resolution calling for the impeachment of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) for the same reason, just weeks after the arrest of militia members for allegedly plotting to kidnap her.

Idaho’s Republican lieutenant governor appeared in a video slamming Gov. Brad Little, also a Republican, for “draconian tactics” as a summer of loosening restrictions gives way to a holiday season that looks increasingly grim. With their economies shattered and Congress so far failing to pass additional aid, local and state officials are lashing out.

Ohio GOP lawmakers are trying to impeach Gov. Mike DeWine over his coronavirus rules. He says they’re ignoring reality.

In Virginia, reported cases of the coronavirus are climbing back toward levels not seen since spring. Rural areas have been hit particularly hard; Campbell County’s seven-day average infection rate of 32.2 cases per 100,000 people as of Wednesday was higher than the overall state average of 27.1, according to Virginia Department of Health figures.

The surge statewide led Northam to tighten restrictions shortly before Thanksgiving, urging families not to gather for the holiday.

Opponents say the governor has no authority to require certain behaviors, no matter the risk. “It is illegal, unconstitutional and must be nullified,” said Chris Anders, a member of Virginia Constitutional Conservatives, a Loudoun-based group that began circulating language for a “no shutdown” resolution online.

Anders, who gathered signatures on a Northam recall petition during a massive gun rights rally in Richmond in January, said the anti-shutdown measures must include enforcement clauses to have any effect.

But it was those provisions that stalled the effort last week in Bedford, where supervisors who otherwise supported the resolution questioned the legality of dictating the behavior of constitutional officers, such as a sheriff or commonwealth’s attorney.

Campbell Supervisor Matt Cline aimed to solve that issue by rewriting the resolution so that it simply prohibits using any county money or employees to enforce the restrictions and requests that the sheriff refrain from doing so.

In an interview, Cline said the action was provoked by the coronavirus restrictions but is aimed at the bigger issue of freedom from government overreach.

“What’s the next thing that’s going to give our governor the desire to restrict our rights?” he said.

It’s unclear what effect the resolution will have beyond symbolism, given that the Virginia Department of Health is charged with enforcing the mandates, not local officials. State Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) “is reviewing the implications of this resolution, but we do not expect it will make a practical difference in terms of enforcement,” VDH spokeswoman Maria Reppas said Wednesday via email. “We hope Virginians will continue to work together and heed the advice of health experts in their communities—these guidelines save lives, and we all need to follow them.”

Northam played down the effort during a Wednesday news conference on coronavirus efforts. Asked what he thought of the idea that law enforcement might decline to participate, Northam responded: “I expect law enforcement will be part of the solution here. I will remind everyone in Virginia that we’re not the enemy . . . The enemy is the virus. So we all need to work together to attack the virus, not each other.”

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But Campbell County residents spoke at Tuesday’s meeting in terms of the American Revolution, hailing “patriots,” quoting Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and decrying the “tyranny” of Northam.

Virginians “need someone to stand up and not bow down,” Lynchburg resident Aaron McMullen said during a public comment period after the vote. Predicting that people would use the words “treason” and “sedition” to describe the board’s action, McMullen dismissed that as “fear tactics. . . . Are you scared? I know I’m not. I’m willing to stand before you,” he said, as most in the audience rose. “We are right here standing ready to help you bear this weight.”

Almost all of those in attendance had worn masks as they entered the windowless, basement-level board chambers, but removed them during the speeches and did not put them back on. Three of the six supervisors attending in person (a seventh was on video link) took off their masks; several sheriff’s deputies in the lobby kept theirs on.

Watts, the board chairman, defended the meeting at the outset as a legal gathering, even though it violated the governor’s rule limiting events to 25 people. He argued that the order said nothing about local governments, adding that “we are here to conduct the people’s business.”

Many who praised the board’s action cited the economic burden of the restrictions. Chris England, who owns the Clubhouse Bar & Billiards in Lynchburg, said that he was down to a dozen employees from about 50 and that his revenue was cut by 70 percent.

Saying he thinks that society needs to “protect the vulnerable, protect the high-risk,” he said it should nonetheless be up to individuals whether they want to wear masks or gather in public places. “They should have their choice to come out and assume that risk,” he said.

Another speaker, Wes Gardner, noted all of the maskless faces in the audience and asked whether they were “hateful, irresponsible people? Absolutely not. These are God-fearing patriots,” he said, adding that he wears a mask all day at work.

Voting to reject the coronavirus restrictions, he said, showed “a spirit of hope, not fear . . . I pray to God this takes foothold and becomes a wave that goes across the state.”

Daniel Abbott, who said he is an Army veteran and executive officer of the self-described Campbell County Militia, was overcome by emotion as he spoke of how the board’s action restored his faith in the country.

“I look at what has taken place over the last couple of months in my America, and I have been ashamed,” he said. “We thank you for standing up for and protecting the people that you represent.”

Only two people spoke against the county’s action. One woman questioned why the board would resist wearing masks when they wear seat belts in their cars every day. And James Cerillo, who pulled off his mask to speak, told the board that he and his wife — both 79 — “are scared to death of this virus.”

He said his wife “did not want me to come to this superspreader activity.” Citing statistics about the thousands of Americans who die every day of covid-19, Cerillo said the country is “losing this battle.”

A voice called out: “Put on your mask!” The audience laughed.

Cerillo waved a sheaf of papers. “If I hold this Constitution up, is that going to prevent you from getting the virus?” he said. “The virus is not going away. The virus is going to get worse. The virus is killing people every day. This is not a political thing.”

Told that his time was up, Cerillo grabbed his walking stick, pulled up his mask and left the chamber.

Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.