To protest COVID mandates, Oroville declared itself a 'constitutional republic'
For Oroville Vice Mayor Scott Thomson, the father of two young boys, Gov. Gavin Newsom's mandate requiring schoolchildren to be vaccinated against COVID-19 was the final straw.
He believed the government had no right to tell him what to put into his, or his children's, bodies. Many of his constituents agreed when it came to pandemic mandates.
And so, he came up with a grandiose, headline-grabbing nom de guerre for his small Northern California city.
Oroville declared itself a constitutional republic. A place where the local leaders pledge to fight mandates they say go too far.
"Any executive orders issued by the State of California or by the United States federal government that are overreaching or clearly violate our constitutionally protected rights will not be enforced by the City of Oroville against its citizens," read the declaration passed this month by the City Council.
"The desire here is dialogue," Thomson said.
For some, the declaration was a stand for freedom. But others in town saw it as a reckless tantrum amid an ongoing pandemic that has killed more than 73,000 Californians.
Butte County, population about 220,000, has one of the state's lowest vaccination rates. As of Saturday, 47% of its residents were fully vaccinated, compared with 64% of all Californians.
Butte County's largest hospital, the 298-bed Enloe Medical Center in Chico, has averaged 26 COVID-19 patients over the last week — more than all but one hospital in Los Angeles County, home to 10 million people.
Oroville resident Celia Hirschman lost her father, former San Francisco poet laureate Jack Hirschman, to COVID-19 three months ago. She said the resolution insults people who have lost loved ones or are immunocompromised, just to score political points.
"It says we're cowboys, and we're not going to live by your rules," she said. "I don't think it's about open dialogue at all. I feel it's a dangerous measure that they have no business adding to our charter."
Oroville, a city of 20,000, is now one of a growing number of rural California communities in recent years to label itself a sanctuary or a place otherwise exempt from some liberal ideal.
Two years ago, the desert town of Needles became a "sanctuary city" for the 2nd Amendment in a rebuke of California's strict gun-control laws. And in defiance of pandemic shutdown orders, the Central Valley towns of Atwater and Coalinga last year declared themselves, respectively, a " sanctuary city for business " and a town where all businesses are essential — with both losing emergency COVID-19 funding in the process.
Designed to benefit from the buzz of California's "sanctuary" designations used in the context of protecting undocumented immigrants, the labels reflect tensions between rural towns and the Newsom administration — and the left in general.
Oroville's constitutional republic resolution is mostly symbolic, with no power over schools, which are regulated by the state.
The town is the county seat of Butte County — a purple county where 36% of voters are registered Republicans, 35% are registered Democrats, and 20% are independents. By close margins, the county voted for President Trump in 2016 and President Biden last year. Voters here supported the attempted recall of Newsom.
COVID rates have remained relatively high here, even as they eased significantly in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco. The number of COVID-positive patients during the Delta variant surge, most of whom were unvaccinated, peaked at Enloe Medical Center on Sept. 23, when there were 95 people hospitalized with the virus. Now, the new Omicron variant looms as a potential threat.
"This is a difficult place to be, going into the winter," said Marcia Nelson, the hospital's chief medical officer. "We're not starting from a baseline of under 10 patients; we're starting from a baseline of what used to feel like a really high number."
At the Oroville City Council meeting at which the constitutional republic resolution was approved, a city staffer had to clarify to one commenter that the resolution was not "beginning the effort for Oroville to secede from California and from the Union."
One speaker was an older man who compared the resolution to the decades-old State of Jefferson movement, which calls for California's rural, conservative northern counties to secede and form their own state.
"These 'constitutional republic' people would probably prevent mask mandates," the man said, citing the county's vaccination rate. "In other words, they're looking to kill people."
The audience broke out in laughter. When the resolution passed, they cheered.
Thomson said the impetus for the declaration was vaccine mandates, especially the one for schoolchildren, which has been opposed by multiple Butte County school districts and has sparked protests across the state, including in cities like Los Angeles.