By Omar Younis
ADELANTO, Calif. (Reuters) -Taking a cue from demonstrations that paralyzed Canada’s capital city for weeks, U.S. truckers on Wednesday plan to embark on a 2,500-mile (4,000-km) cross-country drive toward Washington D.C. to protest coronavirus restrictions.
Organizers of the “People’s Convoy” say they want to “jumpstart the economy” and reopen the country. Their 11-day trek will approach the Beltway around the U.S. capital on March 5 “but will not be going into D.C. proper,” according to a statement.
The Pentagon said on Tuesday it had approved 400 D.C. National Guard troops to “provide support at designated traffic posts, provide command and control, and cover sustainment requirements” from Feb. 26 through March 7.
About 50 large tactical vehicles were also approved to be placed at traffic posts.
Brian Brase, a truck driver who is one of the organizers, said regardless of where the trucks stop “we’re not going anywhere” until the group’s demands are met. Those demands include an end to COVID-19 vaccine and mask requirements.
Most U.S. states are already easing some restrictions. In California, where the convoy begins, universal mask requirements were lifted last week while masks for vaccinated people are required only in high-risk areas such as public transit, schools and healthcare settings.
Another convoy was expected to leave Scranton, Pennsylvania – President Joe Biden’s hometown – on Wednesday morning and arrive on the 495 Beltway (highway) in Washington sometime during the afternoon.
Organizer Bob Bolus told WJLA news, an ABC affiliate in Washington, that his convoy has no intention to break laws or block traffic, but warned this could happen if their demands regarding pandemic mandates and the cost of fuel are not meant.
“They are not going to intimidate us and they are not going to threaten us. We’re the power, not them,” he said.
In Canada, pandemic-related protests choked streets in the capital Ottawa for more than three weeks and blocked the busiest land crossing between Canada and the United States – the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario – for six days.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked rarely used emergency powers to end the protests, and Canadian police restored a sense of normalcy in Ottawa over the weekend.
“We plan to stay a while and hope they don’t escalate it the way Trudeau did with his disgusting government overreach,” Brase said from Adelanto, California, where the convoy will begin, about 80 miles (130 km) northeast of Los Angeles.
Brase said he expected thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, would participate. Organizers bill the convoy as nonpartisan, trucker-led, and supported by a wide range of ethnic minorities and religious faiths.
Economic growth in the United States – as in other countries – was brought to a juddering halt by the imposition of lockdowns in 2020 to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The economy has boomed since the federal government pumped in trillions of dollars in relief, growing 5.7% in 2021, the strongest since 1984 albeit from a low ebb in 2020, the Commerce Department reported in January.
Meanwhile, unemployment stands at 4%, close to the 3.5% rate of February 2020, just before the pandemic took hold, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But headwinds related to strained supply chains and inflation remain.
“It is now time to reopen the country,” the protest organizers said in a statement.
Among other demands, the protesters want an immediate end to the state of emergency in California – the most populous U.S. state with one of the world’s largest economies – that Governor Gavin Newsom has extended.
Nationwide, new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations due to the coronavirus have plummeted from all-time highs hit a month ago, though nearly 2,000 people per day are still dying from the disease and the number of total deaths is closing in on 1 million since the pandemic began.
(Reporting by Omar Youis in Adelanto; Additional reporting and writing by Daniel Trotta in Carlsbad; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Mark Heinrich)