By John N. Mitchell
PHILADELPHIA — State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta hadn’t planned to speak on the floor of the House of Representatives last week.
But, he said, he was offended that Republicans were trying to pass two bills that would allow restaurants to reopen with limited seating, and using them as a “ploy” to show that the continued state shutdown was a Democratic attempt “to create unemployment in the commonwealth.”
So he felt like he had to say something.
“This body overturning these constitutional shutdown orders of the governor flies in the face of what the Supreme Court has ruled in a recent case before it in regards to the shutdown,” he said. “But let’s also say something about, ‘Oh, we need to get back to restaurants. We need to get back to cutting hair. We need to get back to all these service-based jobs.’ What we’re demanding right now, what folks are demanding is that they get to be served, that they get to go to a restaurant and sit down and be served by a service worker who they refuse to pay a $15 minimum wage.”
Republicans responded by booing Kenyatta.
“Yes, yes, you can boo,” Kenyatta said. “But it’s true.”
And if online comments are any indication, many people agree with him.
Video of Kenyatta’s impassioned speech advocating for the rights of low-wage workers has gone viral.
Kenyatta’s office said the video has been viewed or shared more than 1 million times, across various social media platforms.
As of Friday afternoon, a video of the speech that he posted to his Twitter account has been viewed more than 134,000 times, been retweeted more than 1,400 times and received more than 6,200 likes. Another version of the video, posted by online news organization NowThisNews has been viewed more than 279,000 times, been retweeted more than 2,000 times and received more than 5,700 likes.
? nowthisnews: ‘You might not care, but I care about the people I serve’ — PA State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta was booed by his colleague for wanting to protect service workers who are at risk if the state reopens follow @nowthisnews for daily… https://t.co/oKIY0gH6NW
— Jessica Farmer (@JMarieFarm84) May 21, 2020
A video posted to the Occupy Democrats Facebook page on Tuesday had more than 950,000 views by Friday.
Thousands of people have commented on the various social media posts, praising Kenyatta for his honor and his ideas.
Kenyatta was speaking about state House Bills 2506 and 2513, both proposed by state Rep. Garth Everett (R-Lycoming County/Union County).
House Bill 2506 would allow bars, restaurants and cafés with decks, patios and other outdoor seating to open with up to 50% of that seating available for customers as long as it meets social distancing guidelines. Bars, restaurants and cafés that do not have decks or patios but have parking lots would be allowed to create dining space in the parking lots as long as it meets social distancing guidelines and has a single entry point.
House Bill 2513 would allow restaurants to open up with as much as 50% of their indoor seating available for customers as long as it meets social distancing guidelines.
Restaurants across the state have been closed for almost two months in an attempt to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. And Kenyatta said it wasn’t right to demand that people go back to work without ensuring that they have proper personal protective equipment (PPE).
“How is a small business owner right now gonna even get the PPE necessary to ensure that their workers go back in a safe way?” Kenyatta asked.
If businesses reopen, business owners and their employees will have to compete with health care workers to get PPE, Kenyatta said, and health care workers need it more.
“If everybody wants to talk about, ‘Oh, I need to go to a restaurant,’ we also need to be talking about the servers who are gonna have to show up,” Kenyatta continued. “And if we open up without a plan of keeping them safe, we are risking their families. We are risking families in my district. And so you might laugh and you might not care. But I care about the people I serve, and I wish you guys would act like it.”
The state House approved both bills on Tuesday and they have gone to the state Senate for consideration.
John N. Mitchell is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.