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Controversial group to host 'Freedom Festival' in Newaygo in defiance of Michigan's stay-at-home order


A scene from a Stand Up Michigan rally in Lansing on May 14. - STEVE NEAVLING
  • Steve Neavling
  • A scene from a Stand Up Michigan rally in Lansing on May 14.

A controversial activist group is hosting a rally dubbed “Freedom Festival” on Thursday afternoon in Newaygo in defiance of Michigan’s stay-at-home order.

Stand Up Michigan, which hosted a protest in Lansing last week, said it’s expecting a large crowd to gather at a park in downtown Newaygo in western Michigan, which has seen a disproportionate rise in coronavirus cases.

One of the group’s organizers, Garrett Soldano, has drawn criticism from Newaygo business owners and residents for making false claims about the festival and risking a COVID-19 outbreak in their community.

“The whole entire downtown is going to open, all the businesses, the breweries, everything,” Soldano said on a Facebook video. “You’ll be able to enjoy your freedoms again. … We’re taking our state back.”

Several business owners scoffed at Soldano’s remarks, saying they don’t plan to open and weren’t even aware of the festival until recently.

“The three or four who have set this up did NOT ok it with business owners,” reads a post on Von’s Barber Shop’s Facebook page. “The food places are not doing inside dining. It is take out. This kind of crap, having a swarm of people come from places with higher rates of Covid puts our area at higher risk [than] we are now. I WONT BE A PART OF IT.”

It’s unclear whether Stand Up Michigan received a permit to hold the festival. Neither the city manager nor the police department responded to calls from Metro Times.

Meanwhile, the River County Chamber of Commerce of Newaygo County has postponed its Memorial Day Weekend Festival to July because of the state's stay-at-home order.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office said the illegal gathering has the potential to spread COVID-19 at a time when the state is making good progress controlling it.

“In a state where more than 50,000 people have contracted COVID-19, Governor Whitmer’s first priority is protecting the health and safety of Michiganders,” Bobby Leddy, a spokesman for Whitmer’s office, tells Metro Times. “Our state’s top medical experts have made it clear that this deadly virus spreads quickly when people are in close contact with one another, which is why it is important to maintain social distancing and wear a mask to mitigate its spread. Without a vaccine, the worst thing people can do is congregate in a way that causes a second wave of infections and death, puts health care workers at further risk, and wipes out all the progress we've made.”

In the past four days, the number of coronavirus cases in Newaygo grew by nearly 50%, one of the highest rates of increase in the state.

Some have questioned the motives of Soldano, a former Western Michigan University college football linebacker-turned-chiropractor and entrepreneur. He created a Stand Up Michigan website with merchandise and membership fees.

The national marketing director of JuicePlus+, Soldano claimed the $75-a-month juice can “dominate” COVID-19, which the company has denied.

Soldano also created a Facebook group called “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine,” which was removed for violating the social media company’s policies against hate speech. It was one of four private groups, featured in a Metro Times story, that was filled with violent and sexist rants.

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