On an overcast but relatively warm Saturday afternoon, a group of people took to the beach at Mariner Park, lighting fires in the provided pits, eating food and enjoying each other’s company.
The scene resembled an ordinary late spring day on the beach in Homer, the only difference being that, during the current COVID-19 pandemic, state mandates stipulate that none of it was allowed.
A gathering for bonfires, barbecue and fellowship was organized by the Homer’s Sons of Liberty and took place at the park from 4 p.m. into the evening. Ashton Callahan, a local community member and the creator of the group, posted an invitation to the beach gathering on the Homer’s Sons of Liberty Facebook group.
“This is not a political rally,” he wrote in the Facebook post. “The message here is of community. A community of like minded individuals who wish to live life to the fullest. A life lived not in fear but in freedom. A gathering of families to promote camaraderie. A public display of support in each other. A much needed boost of moral (sic).”
The beach was also filled with many people who were not there to attend the Sons of Liberty event. Families huddled around their own fires further down the beach, people walked along the sand, and a few even got their horses out for a ride that afternoon.
While it did not appear that any more than 15-20 people were gathered at the Sons of Liberty event at one time during the time this reporter was at the park, Callahan estimates that roughly 100 people filtered through the gathering throughout the evening.
Health mandate 11, the mandate issued by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration on March 27, is still in effect through April 21. It mandates that “All individuals shall cease participation in public or private gatherings that include non-household members, regardless of the number of people involved.”
The mandate does provide an exception for outdoor recreation, but stipulates that it’s only permitted when a 6-foot distance can be maintained between people who are not from the same household.
Attendees at the beach gathering were not wearing masks, and many were standing closer than 6 feet together. One pair reached across the distance between them to shake hands.
Callahan addressed this, saying he did notice a “natural human tendency” to draw closer than the mandated 6 feet of separation.
“It just seems natural and in our subconscious to do so unknowingly,” he wrote in a follow up email. “Masks are voluntary and everyone chose breathing fresh ocean breeze was the healthiest option. People did refrain from hugging or sharing food/drink outside of families. It seemed like a great way to move forward into into (sic) our lives once again.”
While the attendees were at the event, a Homer Police officer drove by the park, rolled down his window, sounded a short siren blast and made the sign of the horns hand gesture out the open window. Homer Police Chief Mark Robl said via email that it was Lt. Ryan Browning.
“He said he gave the ‘rock on’ sign and a siren blast to show his respect for their first amendment rights and being smart about it,” Robl wrote.
Robl said in an email that the Homer Police received three calls about the event. The department made a security check at the park but did not contact any participants, he said.
Rumors began to circulate on social media over the weekend that Rep. Sarah Vance (R-Homer) had attended the beach event. Callahan, who was there for the entirety of the event, said that she did not.
Vance addressed the beach event in a post on her Facebook page Monday night.
“Although I did not attend, I know the members to be respectful people of our community and will not criticize the group who gathered in peaceful assembly as a form of petitioning their government,” she wrote. “This is a time we can support each other when its (sic) needed most. Keep washing our hands, wear face coverings to slow the spread of COVID-19, hold coffee tail-gate parties to connect with our friends and go for walks on the beach! We need to lean on each other for support now more than ever before.”
Vance is a member of the Homer’s Sons of Liberty Facebook group.
As various state lockdowns and restrictions on movement stretch on, protests have begun popping up across the country as citizens become increasingly frustrated. A few thousand people clogged the streets of Lansing in a Michigan protest last week, and similar events cropped up in Ohio, Minnesota and North Carolina. A similar vehicle demonstration is planned in Anchorage for Wednesday.
Callahan said it was never his intention to actively violate state mandates relating to health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. He cares about “everyone’s rights, health and happiness,” he said.
“My goal was never to hold this gathering while a mandate is in place,” Callahan wrote. “Everyone agreed in the beginning stages of this threat to take real precautions a month ago. We’ve been waiting for the governor’s blessing to assemble after the positive outcomes and lack of Covid in Homer. We’ve been case free (in Homer) for 20 days as of this gathering and we have decided to not voluntarily give up this fundamental constitutional right to assemble any longer.”
Callahan said it was important to him that the event not be made about political party affiliation, but remain focused on the group’s assertion of their rights to assemble under the Constitution.
“We also felt it was important that our gathering promoted a different atmosphere from others around the country, in the sense it shouldn’t be a political rally of waiving (sic) flags to any party allegiance,” he wrote. “We aren’t focusing on politics but community and the constitution.”
The group gathered in part to advocate for the economy and society to open back up.
In Alaska, that’s already happening. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration rolled back one of its mandates last week in order to allow health care providers to begin offering elective procedures again. Health care facilities and providers were able to resume those services April 20.
During Monday’s state press conference briefing, Dunleavy announced Alaska’s retail sector will reopen along with other businesses like restaurants, nail salons and barber shops through what he called an initial phase for restarting Alaska’s economy. An announcement with specific dates and a timeline for that reopening phase will be made during Tuesday’s press conference, Dunleavy said, after he meets with mayors from around the state telephonically.
As Alaska’s economy begins to restart, however, both Dunleavy and Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, emphasized that residents will need to continue social distancing measures. Specifically, Zink said it’s important that people stay away from large groups and wear masks. Dunleavy stressed that people should not be shaking hands.
Callahan said anyone who attended the beach gathering was encouraged to follow the state health mandates about social distancing, as well as the health alert that suggests people wear masks when out in public. The goal of the event was not to get people sick, he said.
At the same time, Callahan said the beach was a public place and that he would not ask anyone who wasn’t following those guidelines to leave.
The goal of the Homer’s Sons of Liberty as a whole is to serve as a discussion platform to spread awareness of Constitution-related issues.
“The main goal is to inform and educate people on our constitutional liberties and current infringements on them,” Callahan wrote.
Callahan said the event held at the beach was not about denying the threat COVID-19 poses to Alaskans.
“I care about the negative effects of the virus threat, but I also care deeply about all of the negative effects of keeping Alaska shutdown,” he wrote. “The domestic abuse, substance abuse, suicide, mental health, spiritual health, family strife, businesses closing down, rights being taken away. We need to step back and better look at the culmination of this as a whole and a solution as a whole. And our constitutional stance right now is to set a (precedent) on the fact the we the people will never let our constitutional rights be taken away for any reason. We are responsible to heed wisdom and ‘voluntarily’ agree to drastic measures at times of an emergency but never should our constitutional rights be forced from us, nor will we let them.”
Asked during last Friday’s state press conference by Peninsula Clarion reporter Brian Mazurek about the growing number of people becoming inpatient with lockdowns and hunker down measures nationally, Dunleavy said he understands those frustrations.
“I would agree with them to a great extent,” he said. “I mean, it’s infringing upon me.”
Dunleavy said what Alaska is trying to do with its mandates is prevent the exponential spread of the disease seen in places like Italy and New York City. He acknowledged that Americans, and Alaskans in particular, don’t enjoy being told what to do.
“So what I would say to Alaskans is I understand it — I get it,” Dunleavy said. “And you know, it wasn’t my hope or my vision that I would be the governor during a pandemic. But nonetheless, I think Alaskans threaded the needle. I think I certainly I can’t argue with folks that believe that us saying to them, ‘please stay away from folks, please don’t go into large groups, curtail some of the activities that you’ve done for your entire life and for generations’ — yeah, that was hard. That is hard. That was very difficult, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re trying to get back as soon as we can.”
Asked during Monday’s press conference specifically if gatherings like the one in Homer are acceptable during this time, Dunleavy said the state is still advocating that people stay 6 feet away from people, unless they are part of a family unit.
“We’re advocating that if you can’t do that, that you wear a mask,” he said. “We’re advocating that, again, we wash our hands, we clean our surfaces. We just hope that Alaskans do that, and continue to that.”
Dunleavy said he understands why people want to get back to a “life that they once knew and they once enjoyed.” Until a vaccine or antiviral treatment for COVID-19 exist, however, Dunleavy said the only thing that really protect people is distance and hygiene.
Zink said the state is working to make sure that people are still safe while Alaska is opened back up as quickly and safely as possible.
“This is hard for everyone,” she said. “… It really takes all of us together and I appreciate all of the cooperation and patience as we all chart this territory together.”