Chants of “Open us up” and “Let us work” erupted from a crowd gathered on the steps of Harrisburg’s Capitol building minutes before the start of a rally to reopen Pennsylvania’s economy.
State Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, led off the speakers by telling the crowd he was proud to be from Lebanon County because his county’s leaders had decided to open up the economy, defying the governor’s stay-at-home orders. He urged the governor to “stop threatening the counties.”
A crowd of about a thousand protesters cheered him on, some dressed in patriotic gear, many with signs, some circling the Capitol in cars and trucks, honking in support. Barricades to keep people from getting to the top of the Capitol steps were ignored. Protesters flanked the speakers and stood in blocked areas.
Diamond and another speaker called for the resignation of Dr. Rachel Levine, the state’s secretary of health. The crowd chanted, “Lock her up!” and “Impeach Wolf!”
The showdown at this rally is between Gov. Tom Wolf and protesters who believe their rights have been taken away. Wolf, a Democrat, has been slow to reopen parts of Pennsylvania after one of the strictest stay-at-home orders in the nation. One week ago, about one-third of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have moved into an upgraded stage, where limited business can take place.
An organizer of the event reminded the crowd that Wolf has locked down the state for 70 days “of dictatorial rule.”
“At the stroke of a pen, he decided that some businesses are essential and some aren’t,” state senator. Mike Regan, R-York, Cumberland, told the crowd, which surrounded him on all sides, despite barricades on the steps. “I’m glad you stormed the barricades because this is your land.”
Mark Newell, a Camp Hill resident, arrived at the rally on his motorcycle, sporting signs of: “End the shutdown” and “Wolf attacks families.”
He’s worried that many small businesses won’t survive.
“It’s so unfair to small businesses to shut down when Walmart and Kohl’s and all these big places are open,” said Newell, 63, an accountant. The day care at his church is shut down. With a PPP loan, it had $3,000 of income in April and $46,000 in expenses. “You know, those expenses do not end.”
Harrisburg, which has not been cleared for businesses to reopen, has several restaurants with “Open” signs in their windows, offering food to the crowds. An April 20 rally on the steps attracted about 2,000 protesters, some staying in their cars.
Fred Wegner, 67, traveled from Jonestown in Lebanon County for the rally. A retired Army and National Guard veteran, he attended the first rally in April, though, he didn’t bring a chair that time, he joked.
For Wegner, the need to reopen boils down to simple freedoms and ensuring businesses stay alive.
“I don’t think Americans should be on lockdown, only prisoners,” he said. “Think right now, in general, our rights are being trampled on.”
The soft-spoken Wegner carries around a pocket copy of the American Constitution and Bill of Rights, something he picked up last fall. He knows he can be a bit opinionated and admits at times he’s a little abrasive when someone has a differing opinion, but it’s something he’s working on, he said.
Rallies like this are important to him – exercising First Amendment rights is vital, he said. Fiddling with a white cloth handkerchief mask, a few passersby tell him he doesn’t need the mask.
He shrugged and said, “Well, it isn’t just for me. We’re supposed to protect one another.”
One of the passersby, Nancy from Chester County (she declined to give her last name), boasted “I don’t wear a mask anymore.”
Nancy said she is a nurse. She’s also diabetic and suffers from high blood pressure. She admits due to her health concerns that she first wore a mask when the coronavirus broke out, but now she feels it is a weighted restriction.
“I’m not afraid of any virus. I’m afraid for our country. This is all about control.”
A police presence was strongly felt in Harrisburg for the rally. Police vehicles and law enforcement officers with dogs moved into Third Street in Harrisburg.
Members of ReOpen PA and Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine organized the event. They want Wolf to reopen the state economy quickly.
“As the numbers kind of show, the forecasts and the modeling was blown way out of proportion. I don’t think the reaction, the correctionary measures taken by Gov. Wolf, have been fair to so many people who are suffering right now,” said rally organizer Chris Dorr. “What I’d love to see … is the Republican caucuses get really bold about passing Senate Resolution 323 or House Resolution 836, and bringing this to a legislative close as quickly as necessary.”
Dorr created the Facebook group Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine, which has 96,000 members as of today. ReOpen PA has 93,000 members.
Arriving early to the rally were Teri Bruner and her daughter, Danielle Wattunen, from Geneva, Ohio, selling Trump flags and other paraphernalia for a vendor who travels among state rallies.
“I’ve been to many, many, many rallies,” said Bruner, who has been working with the vendor to make some extra money while she’s been on medical leave after a surgery. “I’ve been to Texas, Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire — all over.”
She said about the rallies: “You never know what you’re gonna get, but it’s always exciting.”
Today, an SUV with #StopTheShutdown on its door pulled a wagon with, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty or safety.”