“It’s time to rise up!” he exhorted as the crowd roared.
Then Doug Mastriano walked inside the soaring, green-domed home of the Pennsylvania legislature and began his day job: as a Republican state senator.
But some of the biggest cheerleaders for an end to the mandatory social distancing that experts say is necessary to bend the novel coronavirus curve are lawmakers working from within. Taking cues from President Trump, they are using their platforms to encourage citizens to “liberate” their states from restrictions that have caused widespread economic misery.
The push among legislators is adding to the pressure on governors who have resisted Trump’s wish to see states open as of May 1. While some governors have eagerly announced an easing of restrictions, most have not, citing guidance from medical experts that a premature opening could cost many lives.
But governors who stay the course with closures are increasingly facing demands from state lawmakers that they pivot faster.
In Ohio, business groups are aggressively lobbying the state legislature to force Gov. Mike DeWine (R) to open up to save the economy. Wisconsin’s Republican-dominated legislature on Tuesday went as far as to sue health officials advising Gov. Tony Evers (D) in order to block an extension of his stay-at-home order. And in Pennsylvania, the Republican majority passed a bill to make it far easier for businesses to resume operations.
The Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, vetoed that legislation last week, citing the opinion of medical experts who say the state is not yet ready to safely relax. But Republicans have vowed to try again — and to peel off enough Democratic support to override a veto.
With unemployment and frustration rising fast, that point may come, said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.
“When it comes really depends on the nature of the virus and on the governor’s ability to make his case that his actions are called for,” Borick said.
The showdown in Pennsylvania — perhaps the nation’s ultimate swing state — reflects the clash of visions playing out across the country as state governments weigh how and when to allow their populations to resume some semblance of normal life. As in most states, it’s largely been absent in Pennsylvania, where schools, businesses deemed nonessential and gatherings of any size have been shut down or banned.
Although backing for stay-at-home measures has been relatively robust — in Pennsylvania, and nationwide — there is a stark political divide, with Republicans significantly less likely to be supportive.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released Thursday found that 80 percent of respondents said strict shelter-in-place measures are worth it to protect people and limit the spread of the coronavirus, including 61 percent of Republicans asked. A Yahoo News/YouGov national poll released Sunday found that 60 percent of respondents opposed protesters calling to immediately end stay-at-home and social distancing measures vs. 22 percent who supported them.
In Pennsylvania, attitudes about whether to stay closed or open have been driven both by partisanship and geography.
Most of the state’s more than 37,000 confirmed covid-19 cases have been concentrated in Pennsylvania’s largest city, Philadelphia, and the surrounding suburbs — almost all Democratic strongholds. In more rural central and western parts of the state, where Republicans dominate, cases have been relatively few — and the backlash against stay-at-home orders has been building.
When protesters gathered at the state capitol building Monday in Harrisburg, the parade of state legislators who spoke out against the governor’s restrictions reflected that divide.
The protest was called by several groups that did not exist weeks ago. One of them, Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine, was created by a trio of brothers — Ben, Christopher and Aaron Dorr — who are longtime gun rights activists. Links from Facebook pages promoting the rally redirected to the site for a Dorr-run group, the Pennsylvania Firearms Association.
Organizers had said rallygoers would observe social distancing. But while many stayed in their vehicles — honking and cheering as they drove past — hundreds and perhaps as many as 3,000, according to police, emerged to mingle freely, shake hands and applaud side by side as speaker upon speaker demanded an end to the statewide shutdown.
“We’re going to make some noise and let the elected officials know we’re here!” Aaron Bernstine announced as he took his turn at the mic.
Bernstine, like most of those who addressed the crowd, is himself an elected official: a Republican state representative whose relatively rural district hugs the Ohio border. In an interview, he said he was driven to speak out by the anger he was hearing among his constituents toward restrictions that have crushed many small businesses even as large retailers continue to operate.
“Many governors have taken action with a hatchet rather than a scalpel,” he said. “Big-box stores are able to stay open while mom-and-pop businesses are left out in the cold.”
Rather than judge whether businesses can remain open based on what’s essential or nonessential, Bernstine said, the standard should be whether the business can be run safely. And individuals, he said, should be given more authority to make that determination — a theme repeated by many who spoke Monday.
“We don’t need our lives micromanaged,” Russ Diamond, a fellow Republican state representative, told the crowd. “I trust you!”
Public health experts, however, said the rally was not necessarily confidence-inspiring. Rachel Levine, the state’s health secretary, noted that while citizens have a right to protest, the demonstration brought people from different parts of the state — and even from other states — into close contact with one another for a prolonged period. Many were not wearing masks or gloves.
“That,” she said, “is how covid-19 spreads.”
She urged anyone who attended the rally and feels sick in the coming days to contact their doctor.
The rally’s primary message — that the state is ready to loosen stay-at-home requirements — was not backed by science, said Alison Buttenheim, who teaches health policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
Before that can happen, she said, the state needs a sustained drop in new coronavirus cases and a dramatic increase in testing capacity. Until then, she said, “the idea that we can ease up is exactly the wrong answer.”
Wolf on Tuesday said restrictions in areas of the state that have seen low case numbers might be eased by May 8. But he has refused to bow to demands to move more rapidly, or to open up the entire state at once.
Democrats in the state legislature, said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, overwhelmingly support that approach.
“The governor has a plan to reopen the economy. That’s a plan we need to follow,” said Costa, who represents the Pittsburgh area.
“I understand the frustration. People want to get back to work,” he said. But anyone who wants to reopen immediately “is not listening to our health experts and officials who tell us that we’re not there yet. The data has to drive this.”
Costa said he was alarmed Monday to see a number of Republican lawmakers mingling with rallygoers, without apparent regard for social distancing and without masks or other face coverings.
After they left the rally, they joined him in the legislature.
“From a health perspective,” said Costa, who was the only Democrat on the Senate floor this week as others participated remotely, “it wasn’t something I was pleased to see.”
Mastriano, the former Army colonel and current state senator, was less concerned. Although he spent hours talking with protesters — and filming his interactions for his Facebook page — he said in an interview that he’s not worried about contracting covid-19.
“I refuse to live in fear and bondage,” he said.
Mastriano served 30 years in the Army, including tours in Europe when the Iron Curtain came down, in Iraq for the 1991 Persian Gulf War and in Afghanistan, where he directed NATO’s joint intelligence center.
After retiring, he was elected to represent a district in the south-central part of Pennsylvania. The district has seen relatively few coronavirus infections, he said, but has been hit hard by layoffs and shutdowns stemming from the governor’s restrictions.
“It’s really been a rough time,” he said. “I feel a lot of the fear and anxiety from my people.”
Those emotions were on display Monday — along with anger and impatience as protesters wielded signs proclaiming “The Media is the Virus” and “Make America Free Again.” An old military vehicle circled with several heavily armed men waving their weapons from the back.
Mastriano said he approved of Trump’s tweets calling for citizens to “liberate” Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia and only wished that the president had included Pennsylvania. His own speech appeared to be channeling Trump, with hints at confrontation and defiance — but no outright call for either.
Having told the crowd it was time to fight against “tyranny” and for freedom, he said he had heard that there were plans to “do something else” on May 1 if the governor refused to end restrictions by then.
“What are you going to do?” he asked. “What are you going to do?”
The answer from the crowd came in a shouted reply: “Open it up!”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.