Thousands protest at Capitol with calls to reopen Pa.'s economy

"Every business, every job is essential," said Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams, one of the speakers.

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Thousands of Pennsylvanians flocked to the state Capitol on Monday to protest Gov. Tom Wolf's order to close non-life-sustaining businesses, an act of defiance in the face of Wolf's stay-at-home order and social distancing guidelines.

The demonstration was one of several throughout the country in the past week calling for governors to ease their efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus — and Pennsylvania's came as Wolf extended the state's stay-at-home order until May 8.

The protest, organized by "ReOpen PA," a group created just last week, brought in roughly 3,000 to 5,000 people, Capitol police estimated, most of whom had no masks and stood shoulder-to-shoulder, including children.

"Every business, every job is essential," said Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams, one of the speakers. "It's nice for a rich kid to tell us that, but for those of us who have worked for a living, he doesn't know what he's talking about." 

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Thousands rally in Harrisburg to reopen businesses shut down by Governor Wolf's pandemic response York Dispatch

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Wolf's shutdown orders have shuttered businesses throughout the state and prompted record numbers of applications for unemployment benefits. It's been met with significant criticism from Republican lawmakers despite being ruled constitutional by the state Supreme Court.

However, 60% of Americans support orders such as Wolf's, according to a recent NBC and Wall Street Journal poll.

"This is a complete violation of our rights," said Tim Wickard, owner of a contracting business in Cumberland County, of Wolf's mandate. "He's doing this so he can pass his agenda, raise minimum wage, do this and that, all the little crooked things."

Though many protesters railed against the closures, even more used the few hours on the Capitol steps to cheer and wave signs praising President Donald Trump and labeling Wolf as a communist.

The president has supported the nationwide protests since they first took place in Michigan, calling for the states to be "liberated" in tweets. 

Wickard, like many of the protesters, was not wearing masks that have been recommended by state officials. Most recently, Wolf mandated Pennsylvanian wear masks when going into stores.

"If I get it, I get it,"Wickard said. "I'll feel miserable for a couple days. It wouldn't be the first time. It wouldn't be the last."

Nurses, however, had a different take.

Although largely overshadowed by those calling for Wolf to reopen the government, some nurses participated in a counter-protest throughout Harrisburg.

To them, they said, the protest was the last thing the state needed.

"This is horrible. To see the crowd back there, not practicing social distancing," said Yetta Timothy, who works at a nursing home in Dauphin County. "I don't know what everybody is thinking. I'm watching people die around me on a daily basis from this."

Protests to reopen states amid the coronavirus pandemic have drawn scrutiny for more than just what health experts say is a dangerous move that could exacerbate the spread of the virus.

Others have accused the movement of "astroturfing," or running under the guise of a grassroots campaign despite receiving funding and organizational support from moneyed right-wing interests.  

The phenomenon was notably used during the rise of the tea party, which was largely buttressed by funding from the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and the conservative organization FreedomWorks.

Such funding has been seen in the anti-business-closure movements, too.

For example, the Michigan Freedom fund that co-hosted the demonstrations in that state received more than $500,000 from the family of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, The Guardian reported.

It is not clear, however, whether ReOpen PA has similar funding sources.

Organizers at the protest also rebuked Wolf's decision to veto Senate legislation that would have helped fast-track the reopening of state's businesses.

That bill would allow businesses to open so  long as they complied with guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Wolf also has promised to veto another bill awaiting a concurrence vote in the state House that would give counties the ability to create their own mitigation plans — allowing businesses to open if they were to comply with the same guidelines. 

In response, Wolf last week announced plans using a "sector-based approach" to reopen the economy. But he did not provide much detail beyond a general framework and emphasized businesses wouldn't be reopened overnight.

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When asked for comment about Monday's protests, Wolf spokesman Lyndsay Kensinger referred  The York Dispatch to remarks he made last week.

Wolf on Thursday noted protesters would be violating social distancing guidelines and participants would be "actually hurting themselves."

On Friday, though, he took a more measured approach, noting he was a business owner and empathized with distraught workers and business owners.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.

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