Rage against the vaccine: how a San Diego group is lashing out at COVID-19 rules

At a recent San Diego County Board of Supervisors meeting, about 300 people flooded into the chambers protesting mask and vaccine guidelines. More than 100 speakers took the podium, many berating the supervisors and county health officials, decrying what they called a “biomedical security state,” “tyrannical bureaucracies” and the “reign of terror.”

The demonstrators called COVID safety measures assaults on liberty. A few compared them to the Holocaust and apartheid. One Ramona man threatened to make a citizens’ arrest against the supervisors.


The protest made it onto the national news, the Stephen Colbert show and into a heavy metal mashup with more than quarter of a million views on YouTube.

Behind it all is ReOpen San Diego. Founded in spring 2020 by three San Diego women, the group has touched off rallies and public events protesting everything from school closures to masks to vaccination requirements.

They plan to keep up the pressure with a march and rally at the next Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.

“We are fighting for freedom with people around the world,” said Alysson Hartmann, one of the co-founders, during the supervisors meeting. “We are the only thing standing between tyranny and our country and kids.”

The protest seemed to explode out of nowhere, but it had been building for months during the pandemic.

ReOpen San Diego started as a Facebook group in spring 2020, when two San Diego women decided to meet weekly at local parks.

Hartmann, 42, is a former substitute teacher with Poway Unified School District and a former science teacher at San Diego Unified School District. She also lists work as a holistic health coach among her credentials. A mother of three, including two girls in fifth and seventh grade, Hartmann said she quit work during the pandemic to homeschool her daughters.

Co-founder Diane Ake, 65, is listed on ReOpen San Diego’s website as a “college professor with roots in community organizing.” Records show she also has been affiliated with the Gerson Institute, an alternative cancer treatment center in San Diego.

She has been an activist on a variety of issues and has written letters to the editor in the San Diego Union-Tribune in favor of Project Wildlife and against drinking water fluoridation, youth tobacco use and individual marijuana cultivation.

La Mesa resident Amy Reichert, 53, is a licensed private investigator and marketing specialist. She became involved in ReOpen San Diego last summer. After the isolation of lockdowns, it offered a much needed sense of social connection, she said.

San Diego, CA – August 17: ReOpen San Diego demonstrators protest COVID-19 restrictions at the San Diego County Administration Building, in San Diego, CA. {({photographer} / The San Diego Union-Tribune)  (Brittany Cruz-Fejeran/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“We really got together just to have some sense of community,” Reichert said. “We weren’t talking about political action. We were processing what was happening in 2020. We talked about the impact of school closures on our kids, who had been on screens and hadn’t seen friends. We sat on the lawn and talked while our kids played.”

Neither Ake nor Hartmann responded to requests for interviews from the San Diego Union Tribune. Instead Reichert spoke on the organization’s behalf.

The group’s rise from playgroup to political movement emerged in the spring, as members called into Board of Supervisors meetings to object to business and school closures due to the pandemic. Frustrated with waiting on hold in a phone queue, they held a rally in April urging the supervisors to hold their public meetings in person.

The next month they demonstrated at the board of supervisors’ first face-to-face meeting in more than a year.

By June the state had ended the tiered system of COVID-19 restrictions and businesses were reopening. But as the highly contagious Delta Variant spiked case numbers, ReOpen San Diego shifted its focus to protesting renewed mask recommendations and the efforts to convince the most reluctant to get vaccinated.

Their ranks of protesters grew, and with that came questions from some about whether the group is being funded by outside organizations or political parties.

Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher said public officials are targets for public anger because of the virus, but he also believes some on the political right are exploiting that anger to score points.

“It’s been a very trying year; it has caused tremendous anxiety and upheaval and uncertainty,” he said. “I think some of it is kind of a natural outcropping of a difficult situation. And some of it is rooted in a political ideology.”

ReOpen San Diego is registered as a nonprofit with the California Secretary of State and a 501c3 charity by the IRS. It isn’t involved in political campaigns, Reichert said, although she personally volunteers in the campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Reichert said ReOpen San Diego accepts donations, most ranging from $20 to $100, but it has no corporate or political sponsors and no formal membership.
It has $11,000 in its bank account, she said.

“We are not backed by any organization or political party. No organization has come in to fund us whatsoever,” she said.

ReOpen San Diego also does not oppose vaccines per se, Reichert said, but it objects to vaccination requirements at work and school, and to access restaurants and public events.

Reichert said she and her family have received other routine vaccinations but have declined COVID-19 shots out of concern about possible long-term consequences.

“I am not anti-vax,” Reichert said. “I think we just don’t know what we don’t know. This is not the same technology as previous vaccines; it’s based on mRNA … Decades from now, will we know the long term implications?”

She also has a deeply personal reason for mistrusting medical authorities, she said.

More than 20 years ago, while in labor with her first child, she suffered complications but could not get an emergency C-section, she said. Her baby girl suffered brain damage and died in her arms days later. Reichert said she went through arbitration against her HMO and spent $50,000 before prevailing, but she endured life-changing grief.

Reichert also objects to mask mandates, in part, because her husband is mostly deaf and needs to read lips. Although she and her family have good reasons not to wear masks, they get pushback and angry reactions in public, she said.

Some of the protesters at the board of supervisors meeting said they not only oppose the mask and vaccine requirements, they also reject the science behind them.

Contrary to the results of many clinical trials and the follow-up data on millions of vaccinated individuals, protesters said they believe the vaccines are more dangerous than the virus.

When County Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten presented statistics showing the much higher risk of infection and hospitalization of unvaccinated people, the demonstrators booed.

Some supervisors said they sympathize with protestors’ fears and frustrations about COVID but they’re dismayed by their medical misinformation.

“Before I was a supervisor I was an advocate,” Supervisor Nora Vargas said. “Issues can be very personal for folks. I understand their passion, but it’s very concerning, the level of their tone where they’re at now … More than anything it breaks my heart that people are politicizing this issue. I know firsthand of folks who are not vaccinated and are fighting for their lives in the hospital right now. That’s the part that’s shameful.”

County Supervisor Jim Desmond, one of two Republican supervisors and an opponent of the COVID-19 closures, said he welcomes public input but he, too, is concerned about the anti-vaccine messages.

“I disagree with some of the members who have questioned the validity of the vaccine, as I remain steadfast in my support of the vaccine and encourage others to get it,” he said. “I do think it’s great to see people on both sides of the argument exercising their First Amendment right and speaking out.”

Reichert said she doesn’t mind those who condemn vaccines, as her group welcomes a variety of views.

“So much of what people want to say and express, especially on social media, is censored,” Reichert said. “So our message is unity on the essentials, and liberty on the non-essentials. I can’t possibly control what any individual who agrees with me on the essentials may say or think or believe. I don’t want to get into the role of being a censor of anybody.”

Sometimes the speakers at the county meeting evoked historically repressive regimes including Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, American segregation and South African apartheid in describing the public health restrictions. Before the meeting Reichert mocked Fletcher as “Hitler’s hall monitor in San Diego County.”

She later defended that, saying she was raised Jewish before later converting to Christianity and believes anger against people who refuse masks or vaccines foreshadows harsher penalties against them.

“I don’t like how people so casually throw around the Nazi label because of my Jewish background,” she said. “But what I’ve experienced in the past 18 months, I’ve never expected in my life, that the very oppression Jews faced would be coming to life in San Diego.”

Tammy Gillies, a spokesperson for the Anti Defamation League, said rhetoric comparing the Holocaust to a mask mandate is becoming more common across the country.

“It creates an entirely inappropriate comparison, which normalizes it,” Gillies said. “There really is no comparison, and we are outraged when we hear this. It demonstrates a real lack of understanding and empathy for the suffering and trauma of Jewish people during and after the Holocaust.”

She said it’s part of a trend in which people feel their freedom is being stepped on.

“We really need to go to a place of coming together and not using this divisive language, but finding ways to have a really important and courageous dialogue with each other,” she said.

Fletcher said later he disagrees profoundly with their message, though he supports their right to say it.

“There is an irony, when people are expressing their free speech rights to say whatever they want to say — however offensive or untrue or vulgar — to their elected official, to equate that to a totalitarian regime where none of that would be permitted … Frankly I think it’s disgusting to equate our actions that have saved lives to murderous regimes that have massacred millions of people.”

*story by The San Diego Union-Tribune