Dozens of protesters show up for Tuesday’s Palm Beach County Commission meeting demanding the county reopen.

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WEST PALM BEACH — For about 20 protesters outside the Palm Beach County Governmental Center, Tuesday’s county commission debate about coronavirus restrictions played out like a spectator sport.


Hoots and hollers, cheers and boos, even a few catcalls, echoed across the outdoor lobby where two large outdoor speakers piped out audio of the commission meeting. The meeting was also playing on two television screens inside the main lobby that were visible through the main glass doors.


But the protesters, part of the ReOpen South Florida movement aimed at ending closures of restaurants, business and beaches, apparently didn’t know all of the key players in the debate.


Dr. Alina Alonso, the county’s public health director, could be heard cautioning the commission not to "let the genie out of the bottle" by removing restrictions. About 20 minutes later, she walked unrecognized out the main doors and through the throng on her way to her car.


"Stronger together, six feet apart,’’ Alonso replied when a reporter asked if she had a message for the protesters.


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At least 25 protesters attended the commission meeting while another 20 maintained a presence outside. None of them wore protective face coverings and none practiced social distancing.


"This is ridiculous. It’s a blatant abuse of our constitutional rights,’’ said Steve Sidney, 72, of Palm Beach Gardens, one of 17 protesters who showed up outside the center at 9 a.m.


"You can't just shut down the county because of the danger — maybe — of something," he said. "There is no reason to make us suffer any more. Open the damn beaches."


Even though the protesters included people who said they lived in Miami, Hollywood or Orlando, the turnout was far smaller than the large crowds that have protested at state capitols around the country.


"I’ll go anywhere to do this. This is about our freedom,’’ said Sunny Isles residents Michael Harp, who held an American flag in one hand and in the other a sign that read:N"Wake Up America: Freedom over Fake Media, Fake Data.’’


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As Florida is not an open-carry state for weapons, the protesters did not wield guns, as they have elsewhere in the nation. But they did carry colorful signs — "End the Shutdown of New Normal" and "U Stay Home Let My People Go" and "Open small businesses and beaches.’’


"Small businesses are already struggling enough. It is time for government to step aside,’’ said Ann Margo Cannon of Boca Raton, who said she was a co-organizer of the protest.


Vivian Rose, with a scarf around her face, was the only protester who wore any protective clothing. She left at 9:30 a.m. after standing outside for an hour holding a sign that read: "DUMP TRUMP/DESANTIS/KERNER LOCKDOWN."


Kerner is County Mayor Dave Kerner, a Democrat, who has followed edicts from Gov. Ron DeSantis and President Donald Trump, both Republicans.


"I am fine with social distancing but I think small businesses can do that and they can do that at that beach,’’ said Rose, 60, of Boynton Beach.


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In a social media post Monday night, Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said she would leave the meeting room and watch from her office if unmasked protesters filled the chambers without social distancing.


"I appreciate their right to protest and advocate for their positions. But I won't risk my health or safety or that of my staff and family,’’ she said.


Turns out she didn't have to leave. Seating in the commission chambers was limited to 50, with spacing between seats, and the overflow portion in the atrium was limited to just 15.


At 8 a.m., county workers went outside to mark the sidewalk leading to the entrance with pieces of tape six feet apart. There was never a line.


Bill Goddard of Boynton Beach said businesses, clients and beachgoers should be able to decide on their own if they want to go out. The county shouldn’t be stuck following rules set by Miami-Dade and Broward counties.


Palm Beach County’s closures, he said, "are bankrupting small businesses. First it was a couple of weeks to keep the hospitals from being overrun but the hospitals are not being overrun.’’


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One of the protesters was Boca Raton Deputy Mayor Jeremy Rodgers, who brought his two children. "Palm Beach County should open the beaches now,’’ he said.


Lisa Alony of Juno Beach agreed that some of the restrictions made sense a month ago "when they were predicting emergency rooms would be overwhelmed,’’ she said.


"But that hasn't happened. We have to deal with reality now, not from a month ago. We’re not going to overwhelm the hospitals. There are no health benefits to keeping the lockdown.’’


On his way to the meeting, County Commissioner Hal Valeche waved to some of the protesters. In an interview, Valeche said he appreciated the protesters showing up and "expressing their opinion."


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Valeche has criticized DeSantis for linking Palm Beach’s opening to that of Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Together, the three counties have nearly 60 percent of the coronavirus cases in Florida.


He said he planned to ask his fellow commissioners today to open some businesses and beaches. "I want us to be part of the Phase One openings," Valeche said.


"Being tied to Broward and Miami-Dade is not right. We need to be opening on our own," he said.


The governor’s Phase One allows stores and restaurants everywhere in Florida except the tri-county region to reopen to 25 percent capacity. It does not open hair and nail salons or other activities requiring close contact.


Some are using the legal system to challenge restrictions. Disbarred attorney William Abramson on Tuesday filed a lawsuit with the Florida Supreme Court, claiming DeSantis has no legal authority to close restaurants and other businesses. The lawsuit is similar to one filed last week in U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach.


But others, like Tuesday’s demonstrators, preferred taking their message directly to local elected officials.


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Once the meeting started, the audio was largely ignored by the protesters outside. They posed for selfies, chatted with each other and helped their children make protest signs like, "Stop restricting Small Business.’’


But Rachael Cohen, founder of Re-Open South Florida and a Hollywood resident, was paying attention. "Everyone, listen to this commissioner,’’ she said through a bullhorn after Valeche proposed relaxing the restrictions.


With that reminder, the crowd paid attention. Protesters erupted in cheers when they heard a speaker demand the end to the restrictions. They erupted in boos when County Adminstrator Verdenia Baker mentioned "six feet of separation.’’


The loudest cheers came when a business owner lamenting forced layoffs said to commissioners, "These are people who want to get back to work.’’


jcapozzi@pbpost.com


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For more information:


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– Florida DOH coronavirus hotline (8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday) is 866-779-6121 or email COVID-19@flhealth.gov