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As coronavirus hits home, Pa. GOP shifts messaging but still rejects mandates

At least two Republican lawmakers said Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 diagnosis was proof masks and other mitigation efforts don’t work.

  • Cynthia Fernandez/Spotlight PA
Protesters demonstrate during a rally against Pennsylvania's coronavirus stay-at-home order at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Friday, May 15, 2020.

 Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Protesters demonstrate during a rally against Pennsylvania's coronavirus stay-at-home order at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Friday, May 15, 2020.

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(Harrisburg) — Rep. Jim Rigby and his wife Kathleen considered themselves lucky when they said final goodbyes to her 89-year-old mother through a six-inch crack in a nursing home window.

Laura Oherrick was diagnosed with COVID-19 at the end of November at an assisted living facility in Bedford County. She died Dec. 5.

“Fortunately, because my brother-in-law is a nurse practitioner, he was able to gown up, go in, and open her window enough that we could talk through the screen,” said Rigby, a Republican lawmaker from Cambria County. “If she’d been on the third floor, that wouldn’t have happened.”

While Rigby said the facility “took every precaution” to protect Oherrick, her death “hit home.” Cambria County was not severely impacted by COVID-19 in the spring, but has recently seen spikes in cases, Rigby said, echoing concerns about hospitals contending with serious shortages in staff and other resources.

Oherrick’s death, as well as feedback from local health systems, led him to close his Johnstown district office to walk-ins and require appointments, a change other Republicans are also making.

But despite the worsening surge, GOP lawmakers largely have not changed their position on how Pennsylvania should approach the crisis — emphasizing personal responsibility, not state mandates.

A post on the Senate GOP’s official Facebook page criticized new mitigation efforts Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine announced last week, including a three-week ban on school sports and indoor dining, and the temporary closures of movie theaters, gyms, and casinos.

“It is possible to take this public health threat seriously and still believe that the governor’s inconsistent restrictions go too far,” the unsigned post said.

Wolf and Levine, joined by health professionals from across the state, cited rising hospitalizations as the reason why renewed efforts were needed. As of Monday, the Department of Health said there were more than 5,900 people hospitalized with COVID-19, including 20% in an intensive care unit, usually reserved for the most critically ill patients.

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) said on her personal Facebook page that the COVID-19 spike and hospital challenges are “real.”

“What maybe isn’t so real is that restaurants are a major cause of the spike,” she continued.

While national studies have established high risk for virus transmission inside businesses like restaurants, the Department of Health has been hampered by a low response rate to its contact tracing efforts and lacks robust data. Of the 62,693 confirmed cases reported to the state between November 29 and December 5, just 4.4% people answered a question about whether they had visited businesses.

Of those who did provide an answer, 4.6% said they been to a restaurant.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) issued a statement last week in anticipation of Wolf’s announcement, accompanied by an image of a deflated Santa Claus lawn decoration overlayed with the words: “Gov. Wolf, don’t cancel Christmas!”

“I recognize we are facing a serious resurgence of COVID-19 and our health care systems are struggling to keep up with the increased demand,” Benninghoff said in the statement. “However, job-crushing, harmful government mandates are not the answer.”

Instead, he pleaded with Pennsylvanians to “follow common sense and listen to the advice of health care professionals.”

Wolf and Republicans in the legislature have battled since COVID-19 emerged this spring, with the GOP attempting on multiple occasions to strip Wolf of his executive powers and roll back mitigation measures.

In June, House and Senate Republicans — with support from a handful of Democrats — passed a resolution to terminate the state’s disaster declaration. Wolf vetoed the measure after securing a victory in the state Supreme Court. Ward, now the Senate majority leader, is the sponsor of a measure that would ask Pennsylvanians to grant the General Assembly power to end a governor’s emergency declaration.

Among ultra-conservative Republicans in the Pennsylvania legislature, social distancing efforts are a political statement, and face masks are a sign of “autocratic control over your life,” Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) said at a June news conference.

Kate Landis / WITF

FILE PHOTO: State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin) speaks at the May 15, 2020, protest outside the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pa.

Mastriano is top among the lawmakers who have shrugged off mitigation efforts in recent weeks. He held a committee meeting in November where hundreds of visitors and high-profile attendees largely did not wear masks. Shortly afterward, Mastriano was diagnosed with COVID-19 during a visit to the White House.

Franklin County, which he represents, has seen a sharp increase in cases since the end of November. The county in the past two weeks has reported 52 coronavirus-related deaths — about a third of the total death toll since March.

A dozen state lawmakers — two Democrats, nine Republicans, and one Independent — have disclosed in recent months that they tested positive for COVID-19, as has Wolf, a Democrat.

Some GOP lawmakers have falsely touted Wolf’s diagnosis as proof that mitigation efforts do not work. Wolf has since tested negative for COVID-19 at least twice but is still quarantining.

“[H]e is the king of mask wearing and social distancing, yet he still tested positive,” Rep. Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon) wrote on Facebook. Diamond regularly does not wear masks in the Capitol, claiming he is medically exempt.

But that reaction was far from the norm in the party, with some lawmakers saying the governor’s diagnosis made them rethink their own approach. During a live Facebook stream, Sen. Mario Scavello (R., Monroe) said “it just goes to show that anyone can get it folks.”

“Please take precautions,” Scavello said. “I’m going to try to do a little bit better myself.”

Rigby, the House Republican whose mother-in-law died of COVID-19, said he never believed the coronavirus was “a hoax,” but still supports personal responsibility over government-imposed restrictions.

“I don’t want to be a dictator. I don’t want government mandates saying you have to do all these things,” Rigby said, “But my gosh, wear a mask. It’s your responsibility. Be responsible. Be courteous to others. I don’t think it’s a big ask.”

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