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What a group of Pennsylvania voters thinks of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus

Democrats said stopping the virus should take priority over loosening restrictions on economic activity. Republicans emphasized personal responsibility and the economic toll.

The Inquirer's Election 2020 Roundtable.
The Inquirer's Election 2020 Roundtable.Read morestaff

There is widespread agreement that the coronavirus should be taken seriously, but deep divisions along party lines about President Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic.

And while voters are pessimistic about the current state of the pandemic, many also still see reason for hope — just not always the same reasons.

Those are some of the takeaways from the final pre-Election Day convening of The Inquirer’s Election 2020 Roundtable, which took place over the course of two days in late October. The conversations occurred as Pennsylvania reached its highest level of new coronavirus cases since April, and before news of a new outbreak on Vice President Mike Pence’s staff.

The Roundtable brings together a representative group of 24 voters from across Pennsylvania, a critical swing state, for a series of open virtual conversations about politics, policy, and the presidential election.

Here’s what some of them said. Learn more about the Election 2020 Roundtable here.

Divides over pandemic response

Democrats mostly said fighting the spread of the virus should take priority over loosening restrictions on economic activity.

“There’s nothing more important than the preservation of human life, especially the most vulnerable,” said Melissa Robbins, 47, a Philadelphia Democrat. “There’s no such thing as an economy without people."

Gabriela Femenia, a 48-year-old Philadelphia Democrat, called the choice between health and the economy “a false choice.”

"If you don’t contain on the front end, then you’re just going to damage the economy in the long run,” she said.

And Ani Hatza, a 34-year-old Democrat in Montgomery County, lamented that “if people were following health directions, wearing masks, and social distancing reliably, then maybe you could focus on the economy."

I understand people are tired," she said. "It’s been going on eight months now. If we had taken the appropriate steps at the beginning, we wouldn’t be where we are right now.”

» READ MORE: These Pa. voters spent 8 weeks talking to people on the other side of the aisle. The biggest surprise: How well it went.

But Republican Roundtable members were skeptical about the effectiveness of public health measures to date, emphasizing personal responsibility and the economic and human suffering caused by coronavirus restrictions.

“Everything in life is a risk," said Glen Beiler, a 61-year-old Republican in Lancaster County. "You have to learn to live with things and you have to learn to be responsible for yourself. The federal government is not the answer to everything in life. It was never set up to be the answer.”

Bill Criley, a 68-year-old independent in Butler County, echoed the the sentiment.

“I have four risk factors for this virus,” he said. “I don’t think the restrictions and lockdowns have made any difference at all. I’m more concerned about the economic hardship than I am with ever becoming infected. I’ve been dying since the day I was born. If I get infected, that’s what life’s all about.”

And David Graham, a 66-year-old Republican in Johnstown, said less populated areas like Cambria County shouldn’t face the same restrictions as dense urban areas.

“Even though we’ve had an uptick in cases recently, per thousand, our infection rate is far lower than the larger cities," he said. “So I don’t understand why we have to play by the same rules as the rest of the state or at least those densely populated areas. ... It’s a whole different ball game.”

Some moderate Republicans expressed frustration with the lack of consistency in public health messaging.

“For me, it’s not necessarily what we do, but keeping a uniformity of message and practice,” said Scott Young, a 51-year-old Republican in Bucks County. “I’d like to get to the point where there’s a social contract where we can all follow basic rules and stick to the plan until the vaccine comes out.”

Or as Drew Jennings, a 47-year-old Republican in Chester County, put it: “I’ll just be happy for one message, whatever the message is."

A sense of community — and hope?

Even amid quarantines, some Roundtable members pointed to a sense of community fostered in the pandemic: Neighbors meeting each other for the first time, or community members pitching in to help local businesses.

“One of the saddest things I’ve seen about this pandemic has to be the closing down of local small businesses,” said Albert Tanjaya, a 22-year-old Democrat in Pittsburgh. “That community factor pushes us to do better, to do more for our neighbors.”

Soneyet Muhammad, a 39-year-old Democrat in Philadelphia, said she wears a face mask and practices social distancing because “I don’t want to play Russian roulette with my life. And I don’t want to play Russian roulette with someone else’s life either.”

Jennifer Austin, a 44-year-old Democrat in Delaware County, expressed frustration at seeing Americans so divided. “I’m not sure what’s so different about this specific disaster than disasters that we’ve had in the country that we’ve been able to come together and work toward some type of resolution together," she said.

» READ MORE: The Divided States of Pennsylvania: How one state embodies America's political discord

But many Roundtable members also said there was hope for the future — though the reasons for that hope were often quite different.

“It’s balancing the caution with trying to keep people employed and living their lives," said Lauren Jessop, a 62-year-old Republican in Northampton County. “I’m just an optimist by nature and that’s what keeps us going sometimes.”

Beiler was hopeful because scientists are learning new things about the pandemic constantly. “We can’t know everything about the virus because nobody knows everything,” he said.

Robbins was hopeful at the prospect of a different president managing the pandemic come next year.

“Under another president, I feel like the lives of the American people would be more valued and made more of a priority,” she said.

Adele Barone, 39, hoped that Americans can come together, no matter who wins the election.

“The best thing I can really hope for, no matter who wins the election, is that after the election season, the virus will be less politicized,” said Barone, a Libertarian in Wyoming County. “That’s what has bugged me the most. I think that everyone kinda needs to come together.”