HARRISBURG — Standing shoulder to shoulder, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the state Capitol on Monday for a rally to “reopen” Pennsylvania, as others circled the area honking their vehicles’ horns and holding signs that read “Trump 2020.”
Pennsylvania residents are under a stay-at-home order, which public health experts consider essential to slow the spread of the coronavirus and keep infections at a manageable level for hospitals. There are more than 33,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, according to the Department of Health, and 1,200 confirmed deaths.
Several Republican lawmakers attended Monday’s rally, including State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), who livestreamed himself mingling with protesters before the rally began.
“We need to open up now,” he told those assembled.
Speaking on the steps of the Capitol, State Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R., Lawrence) led chants and asked protesters to tell Gov. Tom Wolf to sign a bill aimed at reopening some businesses closed amid the government-ordered shutdown.
“These leaders must not focus on just the lives at risk from the horrible virus,” Bernstine said. “Many lives like yours are in danger from a shuttered business, the hunger and homelessness.”
Wolf vetoed the legislation hours later, saying it was “not an easy decision.”
“Reopening tens of thousands of businesses too early will only increase the spread of the virus, place more lives at risk, increase the death tolls, and extend the length of the economic hardships created by the pandemic," Wolf said in his veto message.
State Rep. Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon) told the crowd, “I believe that every one of you is essential and that every one of your businesses and jobs is life-sustaining." He also criticized a Wolf administration waiver process that has allowed some businesses to reopen. To date, the administration has not released a list of which businesses were approved or denied.
State Sen. Judy Ward (R., Blair) questioned government mandates, saying, “Do we need the government to mandate that certain businesses close? No."
The Department of General Services closed the Capitol complex on March 13, just a few days before Wolf ordered nonessential businesses to shut down physical operations. A spokesperson on Monday said Capitol police arrested one individual who did not adhere to warnings to stay out of a restricted area. The person was issued a citation for disorderly conduct.
Jodie Zeiders of Reading said she attended Monday’s rally because of her friends who are small business owners. She said she wants them to be able to reopen safely while practicing social distancing and offering workers’ protections.
"People are hungry. We just need to open it up and use precautions,” she said.
Stan Casacio, a cohost of the WFYL-AM (1180) radio show Don’t Back Down, said Wolf should create a committee with lawmakers and business owners to decide which businesses should reopen.
“Give us an opportunity. I think most people are here to demand transparency as to why some businesses are open, some are not open,” Casacio said. “Poverty kills also.”
While some of the hundreds in attendance were wearing masks, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many were not. Unlike the flu, COVID-19 “might be spread through the airborne route, meaning that tiny droplets remaining in the air could cause disease in others even after the ill person is no longer near,” according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Monday’s demonstration was planned in part by Chris Dorr, an Ohio-based far-right activist who organized similar protests with his brothers in other states. Dorr also spearheaded the Pennsylvania Firearms Association, a registered 501(c)4, which claims there is a “war against the Second Amendment.”
Law enforcement in Ohio is reviewing a Facebook video in which Dorr said “there will be political bodies laying all over the ground" in the context of fund-raising for future elections, the Columbus Dispatch reported.
Annamarie Scannapieco, who helped organize a “back-to-work” rally that was moved to Monday, is an ER nurse and a Republican running for a state House seat in Montgomery County. She said on Facebook she would no longer attend in person because she didn’t “want to risk the health of potential patients should I happen to come in contact with a COVID-19 infected person.”
“With that said, I still 100% support the cause, as well as the people’s right to assemble peacefully to rally or protest,” she wrote in a post, which later appeared to be deleted.
There were a small number of counter-protests. Christie Stevenson, who protested against the rally from the stoop of her apartment building near the Capitol, said she has been social distancing to protect those who are more vulnerable.
“I have been sheltering in place to take care of my parents, their parents, everybody’s parents,” she said. “I think the small business owners who are here today don’t care enough about their employees. I yelled at a few of them that I would be ashamed of them if they were my boss.”
Nurses with the union SEIU also demonstrated, holding signs that urged people to go home.
Wolf in March began putting counties hit hardest by the coronavirus under a stay-at-home order, eventually expanding it statewide April 1. The order calls on people to leave their homes only for essential items, such as food or medicine.
There is widespread support for expanding a stay-at-home order, which many states have already instituted, nationwide. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 81% of voters would back such an effort.
Wolf and Levine last week urged people to stay the course.
“Let’s continue to make this good progress and keep people safe, and when the time is right, we will reopen and liberate every single Pennsylvanian,” Wolf said.
While public health experts say stay-at-home orders and business closures are necessary until there’s enough testing and hospital capacity to safely reopen states, Pennsylvania’s economy has taken a blow. As of Monday, 1.5 million Pennsylvanians had filed for unemployment, while state lawmakers are anticipating an up to $4 billion budget shortfall.
As protesters gathered outside the Capitol, Wolf said Monday he is extending his stay-at-home order until May 8 but will allow some construction projects to reopen then. He said he had not seen firsthand the protesters who were gathered in Harrisburg, but said he respected their right to express themselves.
“Obviously this is a democracy,” he said. “Everyone has the right to express their opinions. I’m just hoping that they, like every other Pennsylvanian, recognize that we want to keep each other safe.”
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) said the protest was a manifestation of frustration with Wolf’s vague plan to reopen the state. Wolf is expected to provide more details this week.
“Sweeping generalities and policy positions on issues like raising the minimum wage provide no comfort when people are afraid they won’t have a job to come back no matter what the wage," he said in a statement.
Staff writers Anna Orso and Erin McCarthy contributed to this article.
100% ESSENTIAL: Spotlight PA provides its journalism at no cost to newsrooms across the state as a public good to keep our communities informed and thriving. If you value this service, please give a gift today at spotlightpa.org/donate.