Pa. Lawmaker: It’s not government’s responsibility to ‘try to keep us safe’

Rep. Jim Cox, R-Berks, chairman of the House Labor and Industry Committee, speaks at a hearing. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

(*This story was updated at 6:33 p.m on 8/12/20 with additional comment)

A Republican lawmaker called for Americans to exhibit “personal responsibility” to fight the COVID-19 pandemic while arguing it is the job of private businesses and individuals, not lawmakers and public servants, to implement health policy.

The remarks, by Rep. Jim Cox, R-Berks, came at the end of a three-hour-long hearing on the state’s beleaguered unemployment compensation system.

Cox, chairman of the House Labor and Industry Committee, then spoke for almost ten minutes, arguing that Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration could not be solely focused on public safety as the “driving force behind the decisions we in government are making.”

Government reminders of the best ways to prevent the flu, such as sneezing into your elbows, were “all good and fine,” Cox said.

But, “it’s not the government’s responsibility to pass mandates, to pass orders, to try to keep us safe.”

“We simply cannot continue going down this destructive path, trying to keep everyone safe, trying to keep everyone from getting any form of any sickness,” Cox added. “What’s next, we’re going to quarantine children who get the stomach flu? Quarantine someone who gets the common cold?” When does this end?”

The balance between safety and personal rights, Cox added, would be best decided through legislative input. The state House and Senate are currently controlled by Republicans.

In an email, Cox clarified that the government “through the military, police and other institutions serves to protect the safety of our citizens each and every day.”

But safety “cannot and should not be the only value we take into consideration when making policy decisions. When government tramples on our liberties in the name of safety, we are neither safe nor free.”

The remarks are the latest in a string of pushback from Republican politicians in Harrisburg who have questioned the Wolf administration’s actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In an email, Paul Johnson, a professor of communications who studies conservative rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh, told the Capital-Star that Cox’s remarks were the logical extreme of the “rugged individualism” that Republicans often support.

“Its just that when a politician says it on the topic of COVID it’s striking, I think, in the dissonance it signals between the reality of a brutal pandemic that everyone is suffering from, and the kind of ideal [of] ‘just tough your way through it,'” Johnson said.

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The disease has killed more than 7,300 Pennsylvanians as of Wednesday. In spring, the state was under strict lockdown orders that closed businesses and kept people inside under a stay-at-home order.

But for the last two months, those orders have been lifted. Wolf did add a masking requirement in June, and further restricted bars and restaurants last month, to further tamp down the disease.

In an email, Lyndsay Kensinger, spokesperson for Wolf, said the remarks were another example of the Legislature’s “unwillingness to implement commonsense safety protection for Pennsylvania workers and the public at-large.”

She pointed to the state’s limited program to fund hazard pay for essential workers, efforts to reopen businesses near the virus’ April peak, and no action on paid sick leave as evidence.

“Our priority should always be protecting the health and safety of all Pennsylvanians as we continue to battle this public health crisis,” Kensinger said.

In an email, Bill Patton, spokesperson for the House Democratic Caucus, said COVID-19 “is an insidious foe” and that it is “going to take more time and a sustained effort to beat it.” 

“All of us are coming to grips with the reality of this worldwide threat, some faster than others,” he said. “The danger is all too real and any politician who takes comfort in willful ignorance is making a tragic mistake. Many lives are at stake, whether they want to acknowledge it or not.”

While Cox clarified that he saw some room for a balance between liberty and safety his remarks on personal responsibility amid a pandemic still struck one expert as “oxymoronic.”

David Rosner, an expert in public health history at Columbia University, said that pandemic and epidemics are not individually determined, and instead “are things to happen to us as a community.”

And from vaccination pushes in 17th century Boston to typhoid quarantines in the 19th century, government action on public health has a long history in America.

You hope it’s done subtly, we hope it’s done reasonably, but that is the reason for government,” Rosner said.

Overall, Wolf has not rigorously enforced his health orders, repeatedly asking for Pennsylvanians and their businesses to willingly abide by his health orders.

Since lockdowns began to loosen, Wolf has also been clear that the state needed quick and plentiful testing along with a sturdy contact tracing infrastructure to go back to normal life.

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At a press conference announcing $1 million in public investment to expand a testing manufacturer Tuesday, Wolf set New Zealand as a benchmark for success.

The South Pacific island nation went more than 100 days without community spread of the disease, due to its ability to isolate new cases of coronavirus. That streak ended this week.

But testing resources are stretched in the United States, and creating strict compliance with public health orders, could be more difficult here.

Polling has shown mask wearing, which scientists agree helps prevent someone from spreading the disease to others, has turned into an ideological divide among Pennsylvanians.

The questions over if and how schools should return in fall, as well as Wolf’s sudden recommendation to spike high school sports last week, added yet more fuel to the fire.

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Cox ended his remarks by focusing on the issue of schools during the pandemic, arguing that “it’s time to get back to living.”

“Moms and dad should be the one choosing whether to send their kids back to school, they should be the ones choosing whether to let their children play sports … .they should be able to decide whether they and their families are wearing masks,” Cox said.

He added: “It’s time for us to take personal responsibility for our families. Government cannot be expected, nor should they be expected, nor should they assume the role of trying to keep us all safe.”

Regardless of the rhetoric, polling has been clear about one other thing — Pennsylvanians think Wolf is doing a good job. A July poll by Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster found that 55 percent of voters approved of his work.

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