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Capitol protesters: reckless or exercising rights?

I am sure that many of you watched as 3,000 or so protesters gathered in Harrisburg on April 20 to urge state officials to reopen businesses and other parts of our Pennsylvania society sooner rather than later. It was a scene playing out at other state capitols, and it resulted in praise and criticism. Knowing that I write opinion columns, several friends and acquaintances called or emailed to ask my opinion.

The truth is that I am ambivalent about these protests. To be truthful, my first reaction was: “Are these people nuts?” I was especially shocked to see so many sign-bearing protesters shoulder-to-shoulder without face coverings. After all, we have been told that if COVID-19 is going to spread, it would have a field day in this type of environment. This would be right up there with spring break students frolicking on Florida beaches in March - a scene that horrified many of us.

State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine counseled demonstrators who did not safe distance and wear face coverings that they would be imperiling themselves and putting those around them at risk.

So this is where my ambivalence comes in. Why, I wondered, would any sane person want to make a protest statement in such a potentially dangerous way, especially since so much is still unknown about this virus?

As I watched and heard comments from organizers, participants and sympathetic legislators, as well as critics, I concluded that their reasons are varied, complicated and stem from politics and constitutional prerogatives to near total frustration.

There is no question that after nearly 2 million Pennsylvanians have lost their jobs, some of them are as mad as hell and say they won’t take it any longer - they need to and want to go back to work. In a statement, the protest organizers said: “The economy should be reopened on May 1 for healthy citizens continuing enhanced sanitation habits to prevent any virus from spreading.”

Despite a government assistance payment of $1,200 to many and temporary federal unemployment benefits in addition to state unemployment payments, many of these workers live paycheck-to-paycheck. They have no rainy-day fund to sustain them over the long haul.

For some, their way of life has been altered in the most drastic way imaginable. So many of them have never known the downside of being unemployed. I can attest to this myself. I am proud of the fact that I have worked nonstop in one capacity or the other from the age of 5 (helping out in my parents’ Summit Hill grocery store) until this very moment 75 years later. For most of that time, work defined who I was. That I never had to ask the government for unemployment checks was a badge of honor.

Among Pennsylvanians in our area, the work ethic is particularly strong. Earning a paycheck, supporting a family, having the ability to purchase necessities and even a few extras from time to time gives a person a feeling of self-worth and satisfaction that is difficult to define.

Imagine this person in a matter of just a few weeks having to reach out for government assistance. It’s a sucker punch to a person’s self-confidence. Add to that the frustration of not being able to apply because of the constraints of an overwhelmed unemployment compensation system.

Some are in such desperate financial straits that they had to apply for SNAP (the former food stamp program) and wait in long lines as food banks dispensed boxes of necessities for them and their families.

The unemployed in most cases do not know when they will go back to work, because Gov. Tom Wolf says officials will open parts of the state and businesses based on health-related data. Even more frustrating, they face uncertainty in a post-pandemic future.

State Rep. Mike Jones, R-York, one of the speakers at the rally, said that while critics have focused on the shortage of masks and lack of social distancing at the Capitol event, “I saw the best of America: people exercising their rights to free speech and assembly in defense of economic liberty,” he said.

Jones criticized the draconian measures put into place by Wolf, which, he said, have resulted in Pennsylvania having about 7 percent of the nation’s unemployed despite having less than 4 percent of its population.

On the other hand, Wolf and state health officials point out that the tough measures have helped contain the spread of the virus and probably saved many lives.

We cannot just throw a switch and have everything return to the way it was in early February. I believe most people - even hard-core opponents of the governor’s policies - understand this.

When the governor lays out his plans for the gradual reopening of the state starting on May 8, will his unwavering concerns about doing too much too soon pay dividends? Or will those employees not included in the early wave of relaxed rules become all the more aggressive in their demands?

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com