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During rally, Pawcatuck barber again begins cutting hair in defiance of governor's orders

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Stonington — As more than 20 people stood outside in support of her barber shop on Saturday morning — some also showing their support for President Donald Trump, and others saying they didn't want to make it political — Cat Thibodeau began cutting hair again.

She had organized the demonstration, creating a Facebook event co-hosted with CT Liberty Rally.

Gov. Ned Lamont said in late April that hair salons and barber shops were included in the state's first phase of reopening May 20, but in response to complaints from some salons and wanting to be consistent with Rhode Island, the governor on May 18 pushed back the reopening date for those businesses.

Closed for two months due to the coronavirus pandemic, Thibodeau opened Modern Barber and Shave on Wednesday in defiance of the governor's orders, was issued a closure order by Ledge Light Health District on Thursday morning, and didn't give haircuts Thursday or Friday.

But Thibodeau said she had 15 appointments scheduled Saturday. She is the only person cutting hair at her shop now, whereas before the pandemic, six barbers could cut up to 20 customers each a day there.

Her first appointment Saturday was Groton resident Robert Caciopoli, who told The Day when the rally began at 9:30 a.m. that what was happening to Thibodeau was "fascist" and "nothing's going to change until every Democrat's voted out of office." He commented that in the 1960s, it was people on the left saying to be wary and suspicious of government, but now it's flipped.

When he walked into the shop less than an hour later, Thibodeau took his temperature with an infrared thermometer and put a face shield on over her mask. Caciopoli also wore a mask, eventually removing it from his ears and holding it to his face so Thibodeau could shave around his ears.

Thibodeau had an air purifier set to max airflow in one corner and a swiveling fan in another. After the cut, she tossed the barber cape in a hamper.

In the window of her shop were signs reading "Call 2-1-1 to report any health code violations" and "'One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws' — Martin Luther King." On the door is a sign reading, "There will be NO entry without a prior appointment. Please do not knock or bang on the door. Call to let us know you've arrived."

Thibodeau had said Thursday she was thinking about reopening, even if it meant getting arrested. She told The Day on Saturday morning she heard from police that if they physically saw her working, they would report that to the state's attorney's office, and the office would give police a recommendation.

She's hoping that by the time a recommendation comes down, barber shops will be allowed to open anyway. Thibodeau filed a lawsuit and said her "hail Mary" was hoping for a hearing Friday, but that didn't happen.

Steve Mansfield, director of health for Ledge Light Health District, said he's not at liberty to discuss anything about this specific barber shop due to the pending litigation. But in general, he said he can only think of one or two instances in his 22 years at Ledge Light in which people have not complied with a public health order, and in that case it's up to local police to enforce.

The public information officer for the Stonington Police Department did not respond to a voicemail or email Saturday. As of 6:30 p.m., Thibodeau said nobody from Stonington police or the state had contacted her, and she was still working.

Thibodeau has filed a lawsuit against Ledge Light, Mansfield, Lamont and Commissioner of Public Health Deidre Gifford. As of Saturday night, a GoFundMe for legal fees had amassed more than $4,400, higher than its $2,500 goal.

Standing on the edge of the shop's porch Saturday, Lilly McBride of Westerly held a sign that said "We want work #OpenCT" on one side and "(expletive) Lamont" on the other.

"She shouldn't go bankrupt on a virus that's not her fault," said McBride, who applied to be a barber at Modern Barber and helped Thibodeau set up. McBride commented that Thibodeau spent a lot of money making everything acceptable.

"With the last-minute decision to close salons, I feel it wasn't fair for those people who were willing and ready. I do support the option of choice," said Stonington resident Haley Smith, who was wearing an American flag mask and, like others, waving a flag. Similarly, Dwayne Baker of Stonington commented, "Lamont didn't take into consideration those that were ready. Cat didn't sit here on her hands for nine weeks."

Stephen McGuire of Pawcatuck said he was shocked at Lamont's reversal Monday and questioned why Lamont needed to coordinate with the governor of Rhode Island, commenting, "(Gina) Raimondo wasn't elected as our governor."

Some of those standing in solidarity with Thibodeau were wearing a mask but many weren't.

Others had signs that read "Don't tread on me," "Trump — making liberals cry again," and "You can't fix stupid but you can vote 'em out! Vote Republican keep America great." Many people driving by the barber shop on Route 1 in Pawcatuck honked their horns.

Some of those standing with Thibodeau used words like "tyranny" and "dictator" to describe Lamont's actions.

The governor's communications director, Max Reiss, said in an email response, "Governor Lamont has been deliberate and thoughtful with the phased reopening approach and with the use of his emergency powers. He's maintained an open dialogue with all business sectors on reopening. Residents have the right to protest, but they must do so peacefully and respectfully. The first few days of reopening have been successful thanks to local cooperation and the more that continues, the sooner life can feel closer to normal."

e.moser@theday.com

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