Not being able to see his barber for weeks because of restrictions on business activity in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Amherst resident Vance Wilkins has felt the lack.

“I haven’t had sideburns this long since Elvis Presley was in style,” the chairman of the Amherst County Republican Committee said to laughs among a crowd of gatherers in the Ambriar Plaza shopping center in Amherst on Saturday afternoon.

Gatherers came to the tailgate event in support of the sentiment among many area residents to reopen Virginia, a process Gov. Ralph Northam is to gradually start out in phases beginning Friday.

A few business owners and Lynchburg area legislators representing Amherst County spoke from a truck’s makeshift stage with a sign that said ‘Free Virginia’ draped on it. Derin Foor, owner of Loose Shoe Brewery in the Ambriar center, said he feels the state has overstepped in deciding some “non-essential” businesses could not operate during the pandemic.

“When it comes to essential and non-essential businesses, who is the government to decide if you’re an essential business or you’re not?” Foor said, adding: “It’s time to get back to work, it’s time to stop being so afraid. If you’re afraid, stay in your house.”

Wilkins, a former Virginia Speaker of the House, said every job and business is essential. As an older resident among an age group vulnerable to COVID-19, he said if he is willing to take a risk by going out in public he should have the right to do so. “It’s just so crazy the way this has been handled,” Wilkins said of the state’s restrictions.

Ed Oliveras, 84, of Monroe, also spoke and described the state’s handling of the pandemic response “a bunch of tyrants taking advantage of the situation.”

Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, attended the event and said people having to stay in their homes to prevent the spread of the virus is nothing compared to what the Greatest Generation fought for in World War II. He lamented people “staying in our houses watching the greatest economy the world has ever seen washed away” and the highest unemployment since the Great Depression.

“Finally people are starting to stand up and be heard,” Peake said.

Peake said those who want the state to reopen understand the danger and are not trying to minimize it. “We can’t afford to let this country go under,” he said. “We’ve got to fight for our freedoms, our liberty and our economy.”

Del. Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge, also attended and said citizens are hurting and need to get back to work.

Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, said during the tailgate no elected official should have the right to tell him he cannot attend church. He urged the crowd to pray for President Donald Trump, who Walker praised as doing “the best he can” with fierce political opposition and dealing with the virus.

“We do need to pray for Gov. Northam,” Walker said. “Right now, he needs the wisdom to open his heart and listen to these people that own businesses and are trying to put food on their table for their employees.”

Wilkins urged gatherers to support local businesses as much as they can during the crisis. Billy Blevins, who owns Jet Diesel Performance, an Amherst County business, said state government’s actions has “slowly eroded our liberties” during the crisis.

“It’s time to stand up and fight for the freedoms God has given us,” Walker said.

Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

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