Crying Wolf: Protesters lambaste governor's lockdown orders

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

Pennsylvanians who say they've had enough of Gov. Tom Wolf's COVID-19 mitigation orders gathered at the steps of the state Capitol in Harrisburg on Friday to demand the governor lift his business-closure and stay-at-home orders statewide.

The ReOpenPA rally was the second such rally in recent weeks at the Capitol, drawing about 1,000 people.

"Everything that he has done so far has been unconstitutional," said Sandra West, an attendee from the Philadelphia area, referring to Wolf.

The state Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court have both sided with Wolf in challenges to his lockdown orders. 

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West said the government is using fear of the virus to control the population, and that alternative information about the virus has been censored online.

Her husband is an essential worker, West said, and they've been OK financially, but she came to Harrisburg to speak on behalf of others who are struggling after having their businesses closed or being laid off.

Nearly 1.9 million people in Pennsylvania have filed for unemployment since March 15, when the first business closure orders went into effect in response to the COVID-19 crisis, according to the state Office of Unemployment Compensation.

Economic devastation isn't the only side effect of shutting down businesses, said state Rep. Mike Jones, R-York Township, who also attended the rally.

Jones predicted the consequences of keeping people in their homes and taking away their livelihoods will include an uptick in suicides and drug overdoses, higher incidence of child abuse and negative health outcomes because of canceled cancer screenings and treatments for other ailments deemed to be nonemergencies.

"I believe we crossed a tipping point two to three weeks ago," Jones said. "We are now destroying more lives than we are saving."

Using a borrowed knife, Bridget Nowak gives an impromptu
haircut to Elizabeth Castelli of Shippensburg during a Reopen PA rally in Harrisburg Friday, May 15, 2020. Nowak works as a stylist at a salon in Bethel Park. About one thousand protesters participated at the rally in front of the capitol building. Bill Kalina photo

As of noon Sunday, 62,234 people in Pennsylvania had tested positive for COVID-19 since the outbreak began, and there had been 4,418 virus-related deaths, according to the state Department of Health.

In York County, 851 people have tested positive, and there have been 16 virus-related deaths.

Speakers: In his remarks Friday, Matthew Bellis, one of the organizers of the rally and founder of the ReOpen PA Facebook group, called on Wolf to end the statewide shutdown and relinquish his emergency powers.

"Under these powers, he has locked down commerce in the state to all but granted waivers to some, picking and choosing winners and losers," Bellis said, leading the crowd in chants of "Give back the power," directed at the governor.

Bellis said Wolf has been making decisions by fiat, screening reporters' questions at his news conferences and keeping the public in the dark about his business waiver program.

State Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, also mentioned Wolf's video news conferences.

"Cowards hide away from the public and do not answer live questions from real reporters," Diamond said, referring to the governor's recent comments about business owners and local elected officials.

Wolf said recently that county leaders who were reopening the economy without the go-ahead from state officials were being "cowardly."

On Friday, Wolf announced another 12 counties, including York, would move into the less stringent yellow phase next Friday, joining 37 others.

Diamond also lambasted Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine's response to the virus, accusing her of muddying the state's death certificate filing system and of keeping Pennsylvania residents in the dark about the dangers in nursing homes, where COVID-19 patients were being admitted, while removing her own mother from a personal care home.

"I would’ve rescued my mother, too. Any one of you would have," Diamond said. "But unfortunately, for countless and helpless Pennsylvanians, Dr. Levine did not share that inside information with the general public."

Chants of "Levine has got to go!" rang out several times during his speech.

There were dozens of American flags, Trump flags and yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags.

John Dahl of State College protests statewide shutdowns during a Reopen PA rally in Harrisburg Friday, May 15, 2020. About one thousand protesters participated at the rally in front of the capitol building. Bill Kalina photo

One protester had a stuffed wolf's head on a platter while another wore a suit and a green Grinch mask labeled "Wolf."

Cheryl Forsyth, a nurse from Lancaster County, said the response from the government to COVID-19 has not been evidence-based.

Forsyth said she worked in an intensive care unit for several years and now works for a private physician. She wasn't wearing a mask at the rally, and she said cloth masks provide zero protection from the spread of viruses.

"Putting a mask on is like putting up a chain link fence to stop mosquitoes," she said.

The CDC recommends that people wear a face covering in public to protect other people. A cloth mask will prevent the spread of droplets from coughs, sneezes or even talking, and that will help stop the virus from spreading even from someone who has the coronavirus but doesn't know it.

Wolf and Levine have recommended that all residents wear masks when they're out in public, and most grocery stores and other public places have posted signs requiring customers to wear face coverings before entering. 

Forsyth said she still has friends who work in the ICU, and that when they have a COVID-19 patient with serious complications, it's frightening to see them struggling to breathe.

But she said the press was never around when she had young and healthy patients dying from the swine flu about 10 years ago, and that more medical professionals need to speak out about the response to the coronavirus.

"We can’t be afraid," she said. "We’ve got to speak up."

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