The term “sanctuary city” just took on a whole new meaning in a small town in Central California, which went against the governor’s continued lockdown on opening businesses during the Coronavirus pandemic. Nestled smackdab in the middle of the state, Atwater, the mostly agricultural city, doesn’t offer a lot of employment opportunities as it is, so it’s no wonder residents are angry and frightened over lost business and wages.
On Friday, May 15, the city council decided to remedy that and declared Atwater now a sanctuary city for businesses. The city’s mayor, Paul Creighton, highlighted the council’s reasoning behind the decision:
“This is America. You have the choice. It’s time for the government to stop dictating another month, another three months, you know, six months. When’s it going to end? When everyone is bankrupt?”
The decision was met with a round of applause from a full council room. And it’s not just businesses that can reopen: nonprofits such as churches can also resume activities. However, there is a catch – isn’t there always?
The city cannot protect its citizens from the state, and can only offer city-wide protection, meaning they will not enforce California’s stay-at-home demands. “We’re not looking to jeopardize anyone’s business,” Creighton said. “That’s a license you hold with the state of California. So, we don’t want to cause any harm there, use your best judgment.”
Bar, restaurant, and nail salon owners face losing their state licenses should California lawmakers choose to punish them for reopening before the governor gives the go-ahead.
Merced County has a population of about 277,680 as of 2019, with about 200 cases of the virus. Atwater’s population is 29,749 as of 2018, and only has about 12 verified cases of COVID-19. Finding work is difficult enough without the shutdown caused by the pandemic crisis. “I get emotional on this, “said the president of the Old Town Atwater Association, Donald Covington. “People are starving. Two family members have two different businesses with small children and no income. We need to do this today.”
Republican Kevin Cookingham, who is running against incumbent Representative Jim Costa (D-Fresno) of the 16th Congressional District and Merced County Supervisor Daron McDaniel, praised the action. McDaniel approved of the “bold move,” saying, “The folks in this room elected us to represent them, and our governor took that away from us.”
Business owners who decide to take advantage of the sanctuary status won’t have to worry about pressure or fines from local authorities. Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke told the Merced Sun-Star that “The Sheriff’s Office will not be enforcing the state’s COVID restrictions for businesses that they consider essential or nonessential.”
Business owner Chris Coffelt took copies of the Bill of Rights and Constitution to give to each council member during the town meeting and then instructed:
“We have to base our decisions on the Constitution. If you receive an order from the governor telling us we can’t open our business, that’s an illegal order. It’s unconstitutional.”
The brains behind this city-wide act of defiance, Councilmember Brian Raymond, got the idea from the city of Coalinga, which on May 11, declared all businesses essential. Atwater’s proclamation takes it in another direction by claiming it as a sanctuary city for all businesses.
While many residents are happy about the ability to reopen the town, some still caution that doing so too soon may have repercussions, such as not getting financial support from the state. The mayor pointed out the state’s projected $54.2 billion budget deficit and argued, “There’s never gonna be any money coming from the governor. I say we focus on ourselves.”
Whether it’s declaring all businesses essential or a sanctuary city for businesses, it looks like the small towns in the Golden State are standing up to the big bad wolf and trying to take back their independence. Will this become a trend? Will more towns, cities, or counties stand up for their rights and defy their lawmakers?
Read more from Kelli Ballard.