COVID cases are down. This isn’t the time to lift mask mandates or refuse the vaccine | Wednesday Morning Coffee

State Rep. Russ DIamond, R-Lebanon (Facebook)

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control delivered the good news that grandparents from sea to shining sea had been waiting a year to hear: People who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can safely socialize inside with other vaccinated individuals without wearing masks or maintaining social distance.

But just as someone’s out-of-state granny got ready to book that long-awaited flight from Boca to Bucks County, state Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanonpiped up on Twitter to remind us that he’s sponsoring a bill that would “protect Pennsylvanians from mandatory invasive medical screening[s] and vaccinations in the workplace,” such as the COVID-19 vaccine.

And just like that, the universe seemed to say, this is why we can’t have nice things.

“Do you see what they’re doing here?” Diamonda noted foe of mask-wearing (and who, in an epic flip-flop, once provided masks to his colleagues), breathlessly intoned above a snippet from a PennLive story about the CDC’s announcement. “This is why I’m fighting to establish your Right to Refuse in Pennsylvania. Call your legislator and demand they support HB262 [his bill] before you get relegated to 2nd class citizenship!”

Diamond went on to darkly add that the new CDC guidance was “the beginning of societal process to discriminate against those of us who will not take the vaccine.”

As a reminder, existing state law already provides for a religious exemption for mandatory school vaccines, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. But unlike some other states, there is no philosophical exemption in Pennsylvania.

But when it’s put in context, Diamond’s opposition, while frustrating and reality-defying, isn’t that surprising.

In general, Republicans are the least likely to want to get the vaccine, Axios reported on Feb. 25. And white evangelical Christians, who make up a large part of the GOP base, are deeply suspicious of the vaccine, the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson observed in a March 8 column.

As Axios’ Caitlin Owens writes, “the virus doesn’t care about politics, and it certainly won’t confine itself to states with the largest unvaccinated populations … High rates of vaccine hesitancy among any group threatens our collective progress against the pandemic, meaning that it’s just as important to reach white Republicans as it is to reach other hesitant groups.”

State Sen. Mike Regan, R-York. Image courtesy of Pennsylvania Senate.

Diamond’s misplaced Twitter jeremiad came just as some newspapers around the state began publishing an op-Ed penned by state Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, arguing that it’s time for Pennsylvania to lift its mask requirements and allow businesses to fully reopen.

“Throughout the pandemic, 11 states never imposed a mask mandate,” Regan, who’s been mentioned as a likely statewide contender in 2022, wrote. “And now Texas and Mississippi have announced an end to their mask mandates, joining states like Iowa, Montana, and North Dakota. And while Connecticut’s governor is choosing to keep a mask mandate, he has at least recognized the ability to return businesses, including restaurants, to full capacity. Further, New York restaurants outside of New York City are returning to 75 percent.”

What Regan leaves out is that those 11 states, which include Arizona (No. 6) and South Dakota (No. 8), have among the highest per-capita COVID-19 death rates in the country. And if you’re looking to Texas as a policy role model, for, well, anything, we have some dramatically unregulated electricity to sell you.

And we should not have to remind you by now that vaccines and masks play a proven role in reducing the transmission of disease. And while Regan argues in his op-Ed that those who want to continue wearing a mask will be free to do so, experts already have warned that dropping mask mandates will reduce overall compliance with other public health practices and risk increased outbreaks.

Still, taken together, the twin actions by Diamond and Regan are a reminder of the GOP’s overarching hostility to science, and why that’s made it so difficult to contain a pandemic that’s claimed more than a half-million American lives, including more than 24,000 in Pennsylvania.

(Image via UPMC/Pittsburgh City Paper)

State Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, one of the Legislature’s most vocal vaccine proponents, called Diamond’s measure “absolute madness.”

“The vaccine is safe and our way out,” Schlossberg told the Capital-Star on Tuesday. “How can people who have been screaming about the need to return to pre-pandemic life be so desperate to keep Americans sick and unvaccinated?”

Last December, the Wolf administration announced it was allowing its indoor dining ban to expire, allowing “self-certified restaurants to open at 50 percent capacity for indoor dining. Restaurants that have not self-certified are at 25 percent capacity for indoor dining,” according to guidance issued by the state Department of Agriculture.

Regan correctly notes in his op-Ed that restaurants have suffered during the pandemic. But he and his fellow Republicans in the General Assembly waited months before providing the direct state assistance that restaurant owners had said was essential to their survival. Last summer, mayors in three U.S. cities rued allowing restaurants to reopen too soon and those businesses paid the price.

We know the roadmap here: Keep wearing masks until everyone gets vaccinated, and possibly beyond that. Then restaurants can fully reopen without fearing the renewed outbreaks that forced many to shut down again last summer.

What Regan and Diamond are proposing will make things worse, not better, and we’ll all have to wait that much longer before we can have the one thing that all of us, regardless of party, want: The ability to see our loved ones again and hold them close.

We’re almost there. These bad ideas can’t be allowed to move forward.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
Elizabeth Hardison explains what the federal stimulus package means for Pennsylvania’s local governments.

Egged on by pandemic-closed offices, state lawmakers and media mulled changes to Pa.’s open records law during a public hearing on Tuesday, Stephen Caruso reports.

A newly released report faults Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration for failing to vet the controversial group Philly Fighting COVID, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

On our Commentary Page this morning, opinion regular Ray E. Landis says lawmakers settled for the same tired conversations during this year’s round of budget hearings, instead of trying to seriously take on the new and massive challenges confronting the commonwealth. And a coalition of public transit advocates argue that strap-hangers need a commitment to fare relief and full service with their funding.

Elsewhere.
Gov. Tom Wolf
 is facing increased criticism among fellow Democrats over the state’s rough vaccine rollout, the Inquirer reports.
Thousands of teachers in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County will receive COVID-19 vaccines this week, the Post-Gazette reports.
The Wolf administration says Pennsylvania restaurants and bars will be able to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this yearPennLive reports.
LancasterOnline considers what county workplaces will look like after the pandemic.
The Morning Call runs down who’s on the 2021 primary ballot in the Lehigh Valley (paywall).
WalMart is offering to host a vaccine clinic at one Luzerne County high school, the Citizens’ Voice reports.
The York Daily Record looks at what can be done to save the Chesapeake Bay, which is being poisoned by the polluted Susquehanna River.

Here’s your #Pittsburgh Instagram of the Day:

 

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A post shared by Allegheny College (@alleghenycollege)

With a new FEMA site online, weekly vaccinations in Philadelphia have nearly doubled, WHYY-FM reports.
A Pennsylvania audit has confirmed that President Joe Biden has won the state, but can’t answer other, fine-grain questions about the election, Spotlight PA reports (via WITF-FM).
GoErie runs down who’s filed 
for Erie County’s spring ballot.
The Observer-Reporter 
looks at how area businesses are innovating their way through the pandemic.
Local Republicans have named their nominee for the Lebanon County-based 48th District, PoliticsPA reports.
Churches and community groups are helping states to vaccinate immigrants, Stateline.org reports.
A year later, Roll Call looks at how the pandemic has changed healthcare.

What Goes On.
Budget hearings roll on before the Senate Appropriations Committee today. All sessions are live-streamed from the Senate floor. The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services gets its turn before the committee at 10 a.m. The Senate Environmental Resources & Energy Committee also meets at 10 a.m.
In the House:
9:30 a.m., G50 Irvis: Aging & Older Adult Services Committee
10 a.m, 205 Ryan: Labor & Industry Committee

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to Joe Grace in the office of Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke, who celebrates today. Congratulations and enjoy the day, sir.

Not Gonna Miss Your Shot Dept.
The Lehigh Valley Health Network has scheduled its largest mass vaccination clinic for this Thursday at Dorney Park in Allentown, the Morning Call reports. Officials plan to immunize nearly 3,600 people. It runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., by appointment only, and is only open to those in Phase 1A of the state’s vaccination regime, the newspaper reported.

Noir(ish).
LancasterOnline
 catalogues the “Infamous Crimes of Lancaster County.” In its most recent installment, the spotlight shines on a 1935 missing persons case that “turned into one of the most shocking and gruesome criminal cases in the county’s history.”

Roller Coasting.
Western Pennsylvania’s iconic Kennywood Amusement Park has announced it plans to open on May 8, for its 123rd season, according to our friends at the Tribune-Review. That’s two months earlier than in pandemic-plagued 2020, and closer to a traditional opening day, the newspaper notes.

Heavy Rotation.
We’ll get things off to a shoegaze-y start with some new music from Galway, Ireland’s New Dad. Here’s ‘Slowly.’  “Lots of dads like us,” singer/guitarist Julie Dawson tells the NME. “It’s music for teenagers, but your dad will probably come to a show and like it more than you.”

Wednesday’s Gratuitous Baseball Link.
Carolina got past Nashville 3-2 in OT 
on Tuesday night. The ‘Canes’ Jordan Staal scored twice, including the game-winner, which came with 35 seconds left in overtime.

And now you’re up to date.

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press