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US truckers inspired by Canadian counterparts plan pandemic protest

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
A truck transports a banner reading “Farmers and Truckers for Freedom” during the gathering ahead of the departure of the People’s Convoy in Washington DC on Tuesday. (EPA Photo)

Taking a cue from demonstrations that paralyzed Canada's capital city for weeks, US truckers on Wednesday plan to embark on a 2,500-mile cross-country drive toward Washington 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 US capital on March 5, "but will not be going into DC proper," according to a statement.

The Pentagon said on Tuesday it had approved 400 National Guard troops from the District of Columbia, who would not carry weapons, to help at traffic posts from Saturday through March 7.

About 50 large tactical vehicles were also approved to be placed at traffic posts.

In addition, up to 300 National Guard troops from outside of Washington were approved to come to the city to assist at traffic posts if needed.

Brian Brase, a truck driver who is one of the organizers, said that, regardless of where the trucks stop, "we're not going anywhere" until the group's demands are met. Those demands include an end to the COVID-19 vaccine and mask requirements.

Most US 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 Beltway, formally known as Interstate 495, sometime during the afternoon. The Beltway goes through Maryland and Virginia outside the district.

Organizer Bob Bolus of Scranton told Washington television station WJLA that his convoy has no intention of breaking laws or blocking 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," said Bolus, a trucker who owns a tow truck company.

As of Wednesday morning, the convoy, which had not yet left Scranton, consisted of a tractor-trailer rig, a dump truck, and a handful of pickup trucks.

In Canada, pandemic-related protests choked streets in Ottawa for more than three weeks and blocked the busiest land crossing between Canada and the United States - the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit -- 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 awhile 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 -- including soaring fuel costs -- 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 US state with one of the world's largest economies -- which 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.

(Source: Reuters)

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