Stephanie Trojan made the one-hour trip from Selingsgrove to Harrisburg Friday to protest what she considers Gov. Wolf’s abuse of emergency power to keep residents locked down.
She and her friends were among the first to arrive on the Capitol steps Friday morning.
“We’re here today because we believe in freedom,” she said. “We believe Wolf is way out of bounds.”
People need to return to work, she said, and she believes they can do so safely.
While Trojan didn’t lose her job from the shutdown— she is a stay-at-home mom— she said she felt strongly that businesses should be allowed to responsibly open their doors again.
“We did what was asked of us,” she said of the initial lockdown order in March. “But now it’s time to move on. Why is Pennsylvania still locked down?”
For Trojan, it was the second trip to Harrisburg for a protest against the state’s shutdown in the past month. She also attended an April 20 rally by the same organizers from the “Reopen Pa.” Facebook page, which was started by Matt Bellis, of Lancaster, and Teo Las Heras, of Norristown.
While the “Reopen Pa.” group bills itself as nonpartisan, the crowd Friday clearly leaned Republican with Trump shirts, hats and flags widely displayed. A half-dozen vendors also sold Trump gear.
Nearly everyone in the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd for the noon rally was maskless and shouting support for the cause, but Trojan said she wasn’t concerned about her health in the outdoor environment.
She said she didn’t get sick after the packed April 20 rally and many others in the crowd said likewise.
Capitol police estimated Friday’s crowd at about 1,750 to 2,000, although organizers believe many more than that attended. The crowd was slightly smaller than the group that gathered on April 20, according to police. The previous rally drew an estimated 3,000 or more people, according to some Harrisburg officers.
Among the attendees Friday was Cain Conlin, of Dauphin County, who wore cowboy hats and held a sign saying: “Cowboys to reopen Pa.”
He was upset that Dauphin County remained in red status Friday, with the highest restrictions still in place. State officials, however, said the county’s number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise.
Conlin said his machine shop was shut down because of Wolf’s proclamation in March and he’s been unable to work since then.
“They need to open up all of Pa. not just some counties,” he said.
Ashley Asper, 35, said the shutdown has been hard on her three young daughters, who live in Cumberland County and had to miss their dance recitals and kindergarten graduation.
“The numbers are no greater than the flu numbers, and we’re hiding in our houses for a disease that isn’t going to kill the mass population,” Asper said.
66-year-old Barb Banocy attended the rally with Asper and her daughters. She thinks Wolf has been “invisible” to the public during the shutdown.
“It’s my job to keep myself safe, not his,” Asper added.
When asked if she thinks Cumberland County should be on the list of those moving to yellow, Banocy said, “Yellow doesn’t help. I want to be able to go to church.”
A Berks County man carried a stop sign with “Open PA” scribbled on the back. He said he works for an essential business, and supported Wolf’s initial response to the coronavirus. But he was turned off by Wolf’s threats to take away funding from counties who want to make the decision to reopen for themselves.
“I believe if you take the necessary precautions we can do this and still have a strong economy, and still be safe at the same time,” he said
The Berks County man said he’s watching a business he’s known his entire life be “devastatingly affected” by the virus.
“I would like to see Gov. Wolf removed out of office,” he said. “He’s gone down a slope that is irreversible.”
Several attendees Friday said Wolf’s hard stance against counties that threatened to rebel prompted them to show up on the Capitol steps Friday.
Eileen Esbenshade, of the Selinsgrove area, said Wolf’s announcement to threaten to cut federal emergency funding to counties wanting to move themselves into the yellow phase infuriated her.
“I think President Trump should cut the funding to Pa., then,” she said. “It’s not fair that he’s blackmailing the counties.”
But Esbenshade said she believes Wolf’s threats against defector counties is empty, because the Legislature is controlled by Republicans, including Sen. Doug Mastriano, of Adams County, who has said they would work to get the emergency funding for all counties.
Mastriano was one of several speakers who addressed the crowd Friday. He chided the governor for not being in his office and for not being willing to talk to his constituents on the Capitol steps.
“The guy should be at work,” Mastriano said. “He should know how his edicts and proclamations have affected and shattered your lives.”
Wolf previously said county leaders who wanted to unilaterally move themselves into a less-restrictive status were “cowards,” which was another statement that most people in the crowd bristled against.
“The cowards are the ones hiding behind their desk hiding in their homes, hiding behind a microphone refusing to talk to people,” Mastriano said. “That’s the face of cowardice.”
Some people carried signs that said: “Gov. Wolf, the cowards are here,” “Be fair and reasonable,” “All businesses are essential,” “We don’t give in to threats,” and “My body, my choice, no masks, no contact tracing.” Some signs promoted wild conspiracy theories and at least one contained the name of an extremist anti-government group.
While some protesters carried large rifles at the April 20 rally, there was only one protester Friday with a large rifle and he stood high on the steps near the organizers. Similar rallies across the country have attracted gun-rights groups, anti-vaxxers, militia groups and internet subcultures.
The state’s Department of Health Secretary Rachel Levine also drew particular scorn during the rally from speakers and the crowd, who chanted at times: “Levine’s gotta go.”
The speakers repeatedly pointed out how she removed her own 95-year-old mother from a care center amid the pandemic but didn’t alert the public or allegedly take more aggressive action early to stop the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes.
Nearly 70-percent of the state’s deaths from COVID-19 so far have occurred in nursing or care home residents.
Levine has countered that it was her “independent” and “intelligent” mother’s decision to leave the home.
“There are no restrictions on moving people from a long-term care facility,” Health Department Spokesman Nate Wardle said.
Bellis, who helped organize the rally, said Pennsylvanians need to live their lives. He said he believes COVID-19 is serious, but that businesses can open reasonably and responsibly.
“We’re here to deliver a loud and clear message,” Bellis said. “Governor: Give up the power.”
Bellis repeated that phrase throughout his remarks.
Police said Friday’s rally caused no major problems and resulted in no arrests.
Harrisburg Police Commissioner Thomas Carter said: “They have a right to protest in a peaceful manner and that’s what they are doing.”
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