HARRISBURG — Amid a national wave of protests against mandatory closures of schools and businesses, thousands of Pennsylvanians gathered on the steps of the Harrisburg Capitol building Monday at noon.
The protesters wanted one thing: For Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf to re-open all businesses across the state.
Thousands of supporters flooded the area around Third Street, stretching from block-to-block. Some people gathered on the steps well-within 6 feet, while only a handful wore face masks. “Don’t tread on me” flags waved above the crowd, and angry protesters shook signs denigrating the state government. Protesters played on Wolf’s name with slogans such as “Wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Others accused health secretary Rachel Levine of lying. Cars revved and honked their way in a loop in front of the capitol building for hours before and after the rally itself.
A handful of protesters openly carried firearms, wore camouflage and “tactical” vests while they covered their faces — but not for health precautions. At least one of the protesters’ guns was loaded with ammunition.
Still, these angry protesters were joined by groups carrying signs for Wolf to “#ReOpenPA,” “Freedom is essential,” “Stop playing politics w/ people’s lives,” and other statistics that support reopening Pennsylvania for commerce.
Finally, several salesmen walked around Third Street selling “Make America Great Again” merchandise.
All these people gathered in defiance of state guidelines urging residents to stay at home until April 30 unless they work for essential businesses or performing life-sustaining activities.
The protesters were joined by members of the media, who congregated around State Street; Capitol Police, who attempted to prevent protesters from gathering on the grass; and local politicians who spoke to the masses.
The politicians who addressed the protesters included state Reps. Aaron Bernstine (R., Lawrence) and Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon), state Sens. Douglas Mastriano (R., Franklin) and Judy Ward (R., Blair).
Bernstine urged Wolf to sign Senate Bill 613, which would shift Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 coronavirus policies to conform to national guidelines.
“It’s time to move forward together. It’s time to get them back to work,” Bernstine said.
Mastriano asked the crowd what it would do if Wolf extended the stay-at-home order to May 15.
“Open up! Open up! Open up!” the crowd chanted.
“We have a single focus here: To reopen Pennsylvania to protect your lives and take this power away from the governor. He should not have the power to decide right and wrong, winners and losers,” Mastriano said to a roaring crowd.
At one point, Mastriano encouraged Iraqi war veterans to “take the fight home.” However, in a private interview, Mastriano clarified he did not mean that fight was supposed to be violent.
“Being engaged politically. Let your voice be heard. What we saw here was a peaceful protest here. That’s fighting for freedom,” Mastriano said.
However, in the face of protesters standing shoulder-to-shoulder on Third Street, Mastriano explained Wolf likes to focus on “vignettes” and “tales” of people not social distancing, and said he saw protesters following federal guidelines.
“Let’s stop oppressing the innocent people,” Mastriano said.
Mastriano called the event both a rally and a protest against what he called Wolf’s overreach, citing a passage from the state’s constitution saying that businesses cannot have their property seized without justice.
“Without any recourse, our governor has put about 40% of our population out on the street,” Mastriano said.
Small business owners and single mothers are the most impacted, Mastriano said. But he said the protest made him hopeful.
“I see nothing but patriots out here,” Mastriano said. “I see good Americans.”
According to a story in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the protest was launched by Ohio native Chris Dorr, who, with his brothers, helped organize several protests across the nation. Dorr sits on the board of directors for the American Firearms Coalition. Other protest organizers included several Facebook groups such as Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine. On this group’s “About” page, administrators listed “reopenpa.com,” a web address which redirects to the Pennsylvania Firearm Association’s website.
Attorney Marc Scaringi also addressed the crowd. He argued to reopen the state with precautions. He denounced Gov. Wolf as playing into his own hand by allowing his family’s business to remain open. Scaringi said reopening the state will “make Pennsylvania great again.”
“We have judicial review in times of war, but we can’t have that in times of viral illness?” Scaringi asked the crowd.
Scaringi also mentioned the court admitted early estimations of the death toll were inaccurate, and said this undermines Wolf’s order because the order was based on incorrect data. In a later interview, Scaringi said the governor’s protocols should only have been applied to high-risk areas.
Scaringi responded to the lack of social distancing by denouncing the risk the coronavirus poses to people, and claimed that because Americans had been exposed to it for months, they had an immunity built up to it.
The protest began as Wolf’s administration delivered a daily press conference. During the press conference, Wolf announced the stay-at-home order would extend to May 8, but also opened up curbside pickup of wine and spirits at state liquor stores and the online sale of vehicles. Finally, he said the construction sector would restart May 8.
As of Monday at noon, there were 129,720 negative cases, 33,232 positive cases and 1,204 deaths in the state of Pennsylvania. For more information about preventing the coronavirus, visit the World Health Organization, the United States Department of Health and Human Services or the Pennsylvania Department of Health.