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From the archives 2020

The backlash against the quarantine has begun in Pennsylvania, with anti-shutdown rally Monday in Harrisburg

by Jason Nark of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Cynthia Fernandez of Spotlight PA |

Pennsylvania officials are aware of the gathering and have advised against it.
Kalim A. Bhatti / Philadelphia Inquirer

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Everyone wants life to get back to normal, to have their hair cut or get a sunburn at a baseball game, to go to work, and walk shoulder-to-shoulder in a park. Some people want all of that now, not next month, and they’re planning to converge on Harrisburg on Monday, coronavirus pandemic be damned, to demand it.

Not all of them will be wearing masks.

“I’m definitely not going to be out there shouting at people for not wearing masks,” said Chris Dorr, organizer of a rally at the statehouse. “This is a free country, right?”

Dorr, an Ohio gun activist, created the Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine Facebook group earlier this week to give people a voice. On Thursday morning, the page had 20,000 members. By Friday afternoon, it had more than 46,000.

“It’s going insane, quite frankly,” he said.

Pennsylvania officials are aware of the gathering and have advised against it.

“If you come to Harrisburg and you’re not practicing social distancing, then you are putting all of yourselves at risk,” Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s health secretary, said Thursday. “So if a gathering like that happens and they’re not practicing social distancing … then they will be more at risk for contracting the dangerous virus.”

Troy Thompson, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of General Services, said the Capitol complex is closed and public gatherings are not permitted. Still, the department is aware of the “unauthorized” plans for a rally and is preparing.

“We strongly discourage anyone from attending any public gathering at this time,” Thompson said in an email Friday. “Protesters who gather on Monday will be placing themselves and others at significant risk of COVID-19 infection.”

Dorr’s Facebook group is one of several organizations behind the rally. Others include ReOpen PA and End The Lockdown PA. Joel Underwood, a spokesperson for the groups, said attendees are encouraged to practice social distancing and “make their own choice as to whether to remain in their vehicle or not.”

According to Underwood, 1,400 people have said they’ll attend, and two elected officials, State Reps. Aaron Bernstine (R., Lawrence) and Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon), will be speaking.

Bernstine said he’ll focus on reopening the state’s economy in a safe way and advocate for a measure passed in the state Senate last week, which would allow a significant number of businesses across the state to reopen following federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency guidelines.

“We’re looking at this as how to make a surgical decision with a scalpel and not a hatchet,” he said. “There are businesses that can open safely.”

Gov. Tom Wolf has said he will veto the bill.

On Friday, Wolf acknowledged the democratic right to protest, but strongly advised against it.

“I know every Pennsylvanian is eager to get back to work — I am included in that," he said. “We are working as hard as we can to make sure we reopen as quickly as possible. What we don’t want to do is reopen and then be hit by this virus in a way that overwhelms our health-care system. Let’s continue to make this good progress and keep people safe, and when the time is right, we will reopen and liberate every single Pennsylvanian.”

Several other gatherings were announced by members of the Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine Facebook group over the last several days, though most moved the dates to Monday to combine forces. Annamarie Scannapieco, 55, of Gilbertsville, Montgomery County, helped plan a “back-to-work” rally in Harrisburg that’s been rescheduled for Monday. She’s running for a state representative seat in the 147th District. She’s also an ER nurse and is hoping people stay in their cars and wear masks.

“Our goal is for a peaceful, responsible, safe rally. Our thought is that people will stay in their cars and practice social distancing," Scannapieco said. “We’re rallying behind the people who are suffering, who are scared or terrified and don’t want to lose their homes. We’re all in this together.”

The goal, she said, is to get elected officials talking about lifting restrictions in a safe way.

“Nobody is talking about a plan to reopen," she said.

President Donald Trump, while saying publicly that governors could decide to reopen their states, also sent out tweets Friday calling on his followers to “liberate" several states. Rallies have been popping up all over the country in recent days, including one Friday in Trenton, where attendees beeped horns and shouted “Open New Jersey now!” On Wednesday in Michigan, protesters carried AR-15 rifles.

The Facebook group has become a sounding board for a slew of grievances, including vaccines, conspiracies about Microsoft founder Bill Gates, perceived assaults on the Constitution, and 2020 election theories. Many believe the extended stay-at-home measures are an attempt to foil Trump’s reelection bid.

Many in the group are thankful, still, that Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election.

For others, the conversation has come full circle: They’re talking about the flu again.

“People need to just stop going to get tested,” one member wrote. “Unless you’re on the verge of dying, let it ride like the flu. The numbers can’t go up if we’re just staying in when we’re sick like flu season…”

Scannapieco, who works in a Montgomery County hospital that she declined to identify, said she contracted the swine flu in 2009 and “we did not shut down the country or the economy."

“We get a yearly flu that kills thousands and thousands of people," she said. “I’m not really so sure what the difference is with this virus.”

During the 2019-20 flu season, Pennsylvania reported 102 deaths, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated between 24,000 and 62,000 nationwide. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, unlike the flu, COVID-19 “might be spread through the airborne route" and there’s no vaccine. Researchers are still trying to determine how deadly the virus is.

Dorr, 37, said he started the Facebook page from a “constitutional approach" to push back against the shutdown, believing the government “overplayed their hand here" based on exaggerated data and overblown models.

“They are not adapting quickly to those new numbers," he said. “Economic destruction is mounting like a tidal wave.”

Dorr spearheaded the Pennsylvania Firearms Association, which registered as a 501(c)4 in the state in 2018. A 501(c)4 is considered a social welfare program and allowed to do more advocacy and lobbying than traditional nonprofits. Contributions to those groups are not tax deductible.

Taking flak comes with the turf when a group advocates for gun rights, Dorr said. In 2019, a Fox News affiliate investigated the Minnesota Firearms Association, with which Dorr was affiliated, and found the group’s nonprofit status had been revoked. His Pennsylvania group is listed as “active” by the state.

Someone built a website about Dorr and his brothers, Aaron and Ben, accusing them of running “scams.”

Dorr described the reports as “fake news.” He said his Pennsylvania group would be ramping up efforts in 2021.

“We’re very vicious and aggressive,” he said.

Gun-rights supporters are planning to attend Monday’s protest.

Donna Lea Merritt, 53, of Berks County, was helping organize the back-to-work rally with Scannapieco. She’s also a candidate for Republican delegate for the 9th Congressional District. In recent weeks, she’s held smaller gatherings on an overpass by her home “to pray over for our country and our president” and also thank truck drivers and public health workers.

Merritt, a stay-at-home mother, believes the country is getting restless.

“The whole reason we’re doing this is that we’re all being the adults in the room,” she said of Monday’s rally. “We want to be respectful.”

This story has been updated.

Inquirer staff writer Justine McDaniel contributed to this article.

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