Gov’t ‘can’t save us from the virus’: In raucous Capitol protest, thousands call on Wolf to reopen all of Pa.

Protesters gather at the state Capitol in Harrisburg on Monday, April 20, 2020 to protest the state's actions to contain COVID-19. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

*This story was updated to clarify Gina Diorio’s employment. She is a spokeswoman for Commonwealth Partners. It was further clarified to update the distinction between Commonwealth Foundation and Commonwealth Partners.

While speakers blasted classic rock anthems and motorcycle engines revved up, thousands of protesters, in close proximity, hooted and hollered to express their anger with Pennsylvania’s pandemic-inspired shutdown orders Monday.

According to a police estimate, 3,000 people were outside the Pennsylvania state Capitol building to demand Gov. Tom Wolf reopen Pennsylvania businesses closed to contain the spread of COVID-19.

“We’ve heard from those in government across the country, to prepare for a new normal,” state Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Lawrence, speaking from a podium set back well over six feet from the crowd. “Our new normal does not mean we will sacrifice our freedoms for our safety.”

In front of Bernstine, protesters, many without masks, packed together on the Capitol’s steps and sidewalks holding signs declaring “COVID-19 is a false flag”, “work, not welfare,” and “I need a haircut.” Behind him, Republican lawmakers, many masked, looked on. 

Since mid-March, Wolf has ordered thousands of Pennsylvania businesses to shut down, for people to stay indoors and to venture out only to buy groceries or gas, and to wear a mask when they do, all to help contain the coronavirus.

But the disease has still spread. 

As of Monday, state health officials had confirmed 33,232 cases of COVID-19 out of a population of 12.8 million people; 1,204 people had died of the disease. Nationally, there are 746,265 cases of the disease, while 39,038 people have died, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the state’s reaction to the pandemic has also led at least 1.4 million to apply for unemployment benefits, while many to go without family gatherings on holy days or the comforts of life, from closed bars to empty ballparks.

Last week, frustrated citizens, egged on by President Donald Trump and national organizing by Tea Party-aligned FreedomWorks and the Heritage Foundation, began to protest state government reactions’ to the coronavirus, from Michigan to New Jersey.

Some out-of-state influence was present Monday; one Facebook group backing the protest was created by an Ohio gun rights activist, whose family is known as Midwestern conservative activists. 

The Harrisburg protest was also just one of at least five demonstrations in Pennsylvania calling for Wolf to loosen his pandemic response measures. Other gatherings were held in Pittsburgh, Erie and the Lehigh Valley among others.

Don’t Tread On Me

In Facebook posts leading up to the big day, organizers called for the protest to be nonpartisan and follow social distancing protocols. Neither was observed. 

Many protesters made no bones about their politics. Hawkers called out their prices for Trump hats, while protesters called for the president’s reelection in November; for him to block federal dollars to Wolf; or to ban same-sex marriage — found constitutional in 2013.

As for social distancing, many protesters stayed behind the wheel. 

Starting around 10 a.m., hundreds of vehicles, from sedans to SUVs to an Army surplus truck, circled the Capitol for hours Monday, laying on their horns while waving “Don’t Tread On Me” flags or with “Reopen PA” signs stuck in windows. Silence didn’t settle on the Capitol until about 3:30 p.m..

Protest1
Many protesters at the state Capitol focused their ire on Gov. Tom Wolf as the author of the state’s reaction to COVID-19. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Just a fraction of the thousands of protesters who decided to leave their cars wore masks. Leslie, a 36-year old Poconos resident who declined to give her last name, said she only wore one for “the media.”

Leslie’s sign noted that millions of people have lost their jobs to “save” a fraction of people from the pandemic.

The virus threat is real to her — she has three kids, one of whom has asthma and has almost died from the common cold, she said.

Her husband, in the construction industry, is out of work, but their family is getting by. Leslie’s concern, she said, was how other families are financially surviving the shutdowns. 

“I’m not going to ask families to go without food and shelter for me to feel safe about my family,” Leslie said. 

People should be responsible for their own families, she added, because the government “can’t save us from the virus.”

A big crowd, that polls say are a minority

As of last week, polling had  found that the majority of Americans support their states’ business closures and stay at home orders.

An April 16 Pew Research study found that 66 percent of Americans were more concerned about ending quarantine too early; 32 percent of Americans’ top concern was not lifting quarantines quick enough.

The business shutdown order in particular has frustrated lawmakers and business leaders, who say it has been opaque and inconsistent. While Wolf has also offered a waiver program for businesses to stay open, he hasn’t released a full list of applicants either.

Citing shuttered offices, Wolf admin. says it can’t process news outlets’ requests for COVID-19 waivers

Both the stay at home order and business closures will last until at least May 8, Wolf said Monday — a one week extension. At that point, Wolf said he will begin the slow process of winding down his pandemic response. 

But even while reopening begins, Wolf said, strict social distancing guidelines will remain in place.

“We cannot relax,” Wolf said Monday. “We still do not have a vaccine.”

Trump’s own plan for reopening America has similar demands and a similar timeline. While handing authority to the states, the plan argues for a phased reopening of the country only after new cases slow and hospitals have current patient’s care well in hand.

Pennsylvania’s health care system appears to have weathered the worst of the pandemic. According to projections by the University of Washington, Pennsylvania’s resource use peaked on April 15. Thousands of hospital beds, including in intensive care units, remain open for use.

“Our collective effort to do social distancing has been an effective parachute and we need to ride it all the way down to the ground,” Alison Buttenheim, a University of Pennsylvania professor of health policy, said Monday on a call organized by the state Democratic Party.

But that hasn’t stopped the protesters, or their Republican allies in the General Assembly, from pushing for a faster move to reopen the state.

The General Assembly sent two bills Wolf’s way to chip away at his executive orders, including a proposal to realign his closure order with federal guidelines, likely reopening many companies.

It could, in particular, reopen parts of the construction industry and some manufacturing companies. Under Wolf’s business opening standards, all construction and about half of manufacturing jobs have been impacted.

Wolf vetoed the bill Monday, and has already promised to use his red pen to stop another that gives counties the ability to reopen at their own pace.

To override his veto, Republicans who control the state House and Senate would need Democratic support, and as of Monday, there has been no sign that any party members would break with Wolf.

Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court, controlled by Democrats, threw out a legal challenge to Wolf’s executive orders last week.

Still, even if Wolf’s orders appear likely to stand, the governor did not try to get in the way of Pennsylvanians’ right to protest. 

“That’s going to be their choice,” Wolf said last week, adding: “The harm they’re doing is basically to themselves and each other.”

The organizers

The event was co-sponsored by three groups — ReOpen PA, End the Lockdown PA, and Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine. Combined, the groups have at least 121,000 members on Facebook.

One group, Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine, was formed by Chris Dorr, an Ohio gun rights activist, and his brother Ben.

The two have engaged in conservative activism across the Midwest — including forming gun rights groups and anti-abortion rights groups.

The Dorrs have also run afoul of state nonprofit laws, and made enemies of mainstream gun rights groups for their tactics and raised questions about their finances, according to Cleveland.com.

Protest2_car
A line of cars drives up North Street in Harrisburg, a few blocks from the state Capitol building, during a protest of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Dorr told the Capital-Star last week he helped organize a similar anti-quarantine protest in Ohio against Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s coronavirus mitigation efforts.

“If I had the time to create a page like this for every state in the country where governors are overstepping their boundaries, I would,” Dorr told the Capital-Star.

Links to reopenpa.com from Dorr’s page redirect to the Pennsylvania Firearm Association, part of Dorr’s gun rights network.

Protests in other states, such as Virginia, have been organized by groups with identical names. 

How deeply involved Pennsylvania’s conservative groups are with Monday’s protest is hard to say.

*Videos shared with the Pennsylvania Capital-Star by PA Spotlight, a progressive political group, showed Bernstine, the state lawmaker, and another protest organizer entering an office shared by the conservative Commonwealth Foundation and Commonwealth Partners, a political group, before the rally. The foundation is a member of the Koch-backed State Policy Network.

On Monday morning, before the protest, Commonwealth Partners released a statement in support of reopening Pennsylvania, saying that Wolf had “imposed one-size-fits-all restrictions statewide.”

In an email, Gina Diorio, a spokesperson for Commonwealth Partners, which shares office space with the foundation, said that “folks including lawmakers, several police officers, and a reporter asked to use our restroom facilities.” 

A small suggestion

Many in the crowd did not follow social distancing, while comparing those who did to sheep blindly following government orders.

But other protesters who showed up opposed Wolf’s orders, but said they still wanted to respect the health orders.

More than 100 feet from the main body of protesters stood Dave, a 50-year-old architect from southeastern Pennsylvania who declined to give his last name. He and his partner Lisa both wore masks.

He argued that all jobs should be treated as essential, but shrugged at the many fellow protesters who decided not to wear a mask.

“We did say to each other, ‘I wish more people had masks’” Dave said, “because it shows respect for the health concerns.”

counterprosters
A counter protester stands in the middle of 3rd Street across from the state Capitol as thousands of people gathered to protest Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 response. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

He wasn’t alone in his concerns. State Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, started her speech with a gentle complaint.

“I would never have recommended that all of you come here today,” she said. 

A nurse, Ward added that in the midst of a pandemic, “it frightens me that so many of you don’t have face masks and are standing shoulder to shoulder.”

The crowd began to boo.

“But I’m grateful you’re here,” Ward said, her voice raised. “I recognize you came here risking your own personal safety to send a message to our governor to stop the overreach and the shutdown.”

The crowd continued to drown her out, starting a chant of “USA,” for another 90 seconds.

Capital-Star Editor in Chief John L. Micek and Associate Editor Cassie Miller contributed reporting.