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Protestors rally to reopen state during pandemic

Protesters demonstrate at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Monday, April 20, 2020, demanding that Gov. Tom Wolf reopen Pennsylvania's economy even as new social-distancing mandates took effect at stores and other commercial buildings. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

HARRISBURG — It was barely 10:30 a.m. Monday when Mike Nester began unloading the final bits of merchandise he brought with him to sell at the rally to reopen Pennsylvania. Taking place in front of the state’s Capitol building, the gathering was aimed at putting pressure on Gov. Tom Wolf to lift restrictions he put in place weeks ago to battle the COVID-19 outbreak.

Yet instead of offering items that encouraged the state to get back to work, Nester was taking inventory of gear that promoted a different topic altogether: President Trump. Flags. Signs. Shirts. He had them all, and each one depicted a different slogan designed to rally the troops not behind the day’s proceedings, but rather, the president of the United States.

“A lot of people hate him, but they don’t even know why,” Nester said in reference to President Trump. “I think he’s doing a good job. I mean, he’s a businessman, and there aren’t a lot of people who understand that business is fluid. People that don’t like him aren’t capable of understanding him.”

Understanding him, it turns out, can potentially lead to big business. Nester wasn’t the only attendee selling President Trump memorabilia at the rally. Rocky Granata, who has received national attention for his RV that dons posters proclaiming “Women For Trump,” “Trump 2020: Make Liberals Cry Again” and “Trump: No man, no woman, no Commie can stump him,” was nearby as he stopped a man, asking if he could buy the shirts the stranger was selling for a wholesale price.

When asked about why they were attending the rally, each gave their own take on what they felt was most important to not only the day, but also Pennsylvania’s citizens.

“It’s time to open up the state,” Nester proclaimed. “My brother-in-law’s miserable. He ran out of” whiskey.

Granata, meanwhile, had his mind elsewhere.

“Donald Trump has a heart,” he said when asked about attending the event, shying away from more questions. “He really cares for people.”

As the day grew longer, the crowd grew bigger.

Some GOP lawmakers also attended the protest, which was organized and promoted by several groups that recently popped up on Facebook, including one connected to an obscure gun-rights organization.

Police were there in force but allowed the rally to go off as planned. It was one of several similar protests in state capitals around the nation.

One of the speakers who struggled to cut through the noise was Pennsylvania state Sen. Judy Ward, R-Hollidaysburg, who not only was once a small business owner, but is also a registered nurse. She quickly tried to turn the tenor toward health after stepping to the podium for her speech.

Unfortunately for her, however, the crowd, which featured hundreds of attendees without any form of facial protection, rejected her advice.

“I’m a nurse and I recognize that we’re in a pandemic,” she began, “and it frightens me that so many of you don’t have face masks and are standing shoulder to shoulder.”

For the next minute, loud boos from the crowd drowned out her amplified words. After the 75-second mark passed, attendees morphed the boos into an emphatic “USA!” chant that continued to overshadow the senator’s voice.

It was nearly two minutes before she won the crowd back, asking the hundreds in front of her if they felt the government should mandate that its state’s citizens wear a face mask in public.

“No!” onlookers shouted before eventually chanting “Open now!”

Doug Mastriano, R-Greene Township, had better luck. The Republican senator who represents the state’s 33rd District began his speech by leading the crowd in the Pledge Of Allegiance. He then spoke about how he felt Gov. Wolf’s order to close businesses was an overreach of his authority.

“Never before in the history of this Commonwealth has a governor exercised so much power,” Mastriano said. “Never before has a governor decided what businesses are essential and non-essential — ‘you shall be closed, you shall be open.’ … It’s time to rise up.

“I see nothing but patriots out here,” he eventually concluded to an uproarious ovation. “Great Americans. We are Pennsylvania, where the light of independence and freedom was lit in Philadelphia. In 2020, we’re going to fight for our freedom and say no to tyranny.”

Gov. Wolf, meanwhile, announced Monday that he was extending the state’s stay-at-home order until May 8 and shoppers must wear masks when they enter a store.

“I think the governor has heard you,” Joel Underwood, a spokesperson for the groups who organized the rally, told the crowd as the program wound down. “This is only the beginning, this is not the end of the movement. Remember, this is still a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Let’s continue to apply the pressure to safely reopen our businesses.”

Rick Arnold agreed.

He drove 103 miles to attend Monday’s rally. Hailing from Jersey Shore, he’s a retired steelworker who made the trek on his own, simply to see what all the fuss was about. As groups of protestors broke out in chants on the Capitol’s steps, waving homemade signs, Arnold stood across the street, away from the action.

He likes President Trump, he said, because he speaks his mind. In his hand was a cup of coffee that he said he bought from a coffee shop down the street — a shop named Roxy’s that’s in danger of shutting down for good because of Gov. Wolf’s order. He was in favor of re-opening the state, he explained, because as far as he’s concerned, so many jobs force people to stay at least six feet away from one another in the first place.

“We need to get back on track and we need to keep things going,” Arnold said between sips of coffee. “In my industry, we all stood far apart when we worked anyway. We need to start things back up.”

Rick and Cindy, for their part, kept their distance from the Capitol altogether, calmly sitting next to their truck, which featured an inflated Statue Of Liberty in its bed.

Wary of talking to the media, the couple declined to give their last names before explaining that because Cindy is a hairstylist, she hasn’t been able to keep her business open as a result of the statewide shutdown.

“It’s a violation of our rights,” she said before taking a moment to think.

“I mean, is any of this really helping people?”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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