Three days into Western New York's gradual reopening from the state's coronavirus shutdown order, between 100 and 200 people gathered Thursday afternoon in downtown Buffalo to say they want everything to reopen now.
Seth Koenig, the pastor at Bible Believers Baptist Church in Cheektowaga, carried a sign that read "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved."
Koenig, after only live-streamed services for two months, said he opened his church and held a Sunday service last weekend. He intends to do so again this Sunday.
"We have decided to take matters into our own hands," said Koenig, who attended Thursday's demonstration at Niagara Square with his wife and two children.
"It was a celebration not just of freedom, but the right to worship Jesus in the way he would want us to," he said of his Sunday service.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has outlined a gradual, four-phase reopening, following guidance from public health experts that caution against reopening everything at once and risking another surge of Covid-19 cases.
"Reopening" protests have been promoted across the nation by conservative groups also working to reelect President Trump. Locally, Thursday's protest was promoted through Facebook and an email circulated by Carl Paladino, who ran unsuccessfully against Cuomo 10 years ago.
There have been at least two other "reopening" demonstrations in downtown Buffalo amid the pandemic. The first involved about 150 cars circling Niagara Square on April 19, with most protesters staying in their vehicles. On May 1, a group of 70 to 80 gathered on the steps of Erie County's Rath Building, calling for a swift reopening.
About 200 people showed up for a protest calling for New York to end the “pause” on nonessential businesses and large gatherings in downtown Buffalo. Lots of people without masks milling around Niagara Square. Some protesters are driving in circles. pic.twitter.com/UHXg8qJJ9i
— Maki Becker (@makibecker) May 21, 2020
Walking around Niagara Square were Noberto Negral and his fiancee, Tracy Schultz, who run King Cuts Barbershop Salon in North Tonawanda.
The state recently announced barbershops and hair salons would be allowed to open as part of the second phase, which in Western New York could begin the first week of June.
Negral and Schultz wish the state would just announce what date they can open.
"That would help," Negral said. "Right now, it's hard for us to make appointments. We're losing money daily. We're buying PPE and sanitizing equipment with no money coming in."
Phase one of the reopening process allows construction, manufacturing and limited retail operations to reopen, along with small religious gatherings of up to 10 people.
The next phase is expected to begin with professional services allowed to resume – including hair cuts.
Gina Dibble, an IT worker for Key Bank, walked around the square alone, holding up a sign that said "Enough is enough. It's time to open back up."
Dibble has been able to continue working from home, but she said her friends and family can't and "are losing their livelihoods."
She said she has adhered to some social distancing, but she has continued to visit her mother every day.
The protest came as Erie County leaders kept a close eye on hospitalization numbers.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz on Thursday announced a slight growth in regional and Erie County hospitalizations on May 19, up five and four, respectively.