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EDITORIAL: Demonstrations won’t beat virus

York Dispatch Editorial Board

Demonstrators turned out in Harrisburg by the thousands Monday to protest against measures to counter the still-raging coronavirus pandemic.

What they were really demonstrating against was reality.

Despite what right-wing media, guns-rights agitators and even the president would have their followers believe, reopening the economy won’t be a political decision; it will be a public-health decision.

Public frustration is understandable; the sudden loss of stability — employment and attendant health-care coverage, schooling, shopping, live entertainment and the ability to move freely in public — has been unnerving and life-changing.

And matters are far worse for the thousands of state residents who have contracted COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. There have been more than 34,000 cases in Pennsylvania, with some 1,350 resulting in fatalities.

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

But public demonstrations aren’t going to change the severity of the crisis; if anything, they’ll make it worse.

While citizens have the right to protest, as they have done in other states in recent days, they do so at great risk to themselves and the general public.

Social distancing is a proven method of reducing spread of the virus, a fact many of Monday’s demonstrators either disparaged or dismissed. In gathering closely, and largely without protective masks and clothing, the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 protesters in Harrisburg put themselves, their families and any others they interact with at risk.

All the more reason for Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto Monday of legislation that would have allowed more Pennsylvania businesses to open sooner. The Republican-backed measure ignored state health officials’ warnings that there is not yet sufficient testing and protective health-care equipment to safely expand many business operations. The governor also extended the state’s stay-at-home order through May 8.

Editorial cartoon for Wednesday, April 22

The moves were criticized by Senate GOP leaders Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and Jake Corman, R-Centre, who, in a joint statement, said of Wolf, “it is very troubling that he vetoed a proposal to create a public mitigation plan that would have allowed employers to operate safely during the current emergency declaration.”

Again, we all want the state’s employees back on the job as quickly as possible. But this is a decision that must be made by — or at least in concert with — public-health experts, not solely by politicians. Opening too quickly could backfire badly.

Frankly, the politicizing of the pandemic, especially in the form of demonstrations, is almost as troubling as the public-health ramifications of these gatherings. Signs supporting President Trump abounded during Monday’s Harrisburg protest, along with posters denouncing Wolf.

“This is a complete violation of our rights,” complained one demonstrator. “(Gov. Wolf) is doing this so he can pass his agenda, raise minimum wage, do this and that, all the little crooked things.”

No good deed.

Wolf isn’t the only target of such accusations. Across the nation, efforts to protect the public health by taking steps to reduce the spread of the coronavirus are increasingly being couched as government overreach by conservative media, gun-rights groups and their followers. Demonstrations have flared in Michigan, California, New York and elsewhere in recent days.

President Donald Trump is among those fanning the flames, posting on Twitter last week calls to “LIBERATE” states like Michigan and Virginia, where Democratic governors have put policies in place that largely adhere to federal health guidelines.

Republican governors in states like Florida and Georgia have followed the president’s lead, opening beaches and green-lighting public business despite the lack of adequate testing and other public-health safeguards.

When should state and national economies reopen? “It’s very much time to start having that conversation and start figuring that out,” said Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, a member of the president’s task force on the topic.

OK, but that conversation must include medical experts, not just politicians and business leaders. The economy is vitally important but so are the lives of American citizens, more than 42,000 of whom have already been lost to this scourge.

All the protests in the world aren’t going to subdue the coronavirus pandemic. Wise public policy will.