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Pa. Republicans resist hypothetical COVID restrictions

  • Robby Brod
The state House leadership of the State Freedom Caucus Network, during a news conference at the state Capitol in Harrisburg. November 28, 2022.

 Dan Gleiter / PennLive

The state House leadership of the State Freedom Caucus Network, during a news conference at the state Capitol in Harrisburg. November 28, 2022.

Since July, COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on the rise nationwide – including in Pennsylvania.

All 67 counties are designated as having a “low” rate of new cases, according to the CDC, and there’s been no indication from any state official that new restrictions could be on the way.

However, some Republican lawmakers are voicing opposition to nonexistent pandemic restrictions – and providing no proof of any impending COVID mandates.

On Thursday, the Pennsylvania Freedom Caucus published a statement claiming “liberal media” reports on increasing COVID trends are laying the groundwork for renewed restrictions.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, from Franklin County, posted a similar sentiment on social media.

“Whatever happens next,” he wrote on X (formerly Twitter), “Do Not Comply.”

Democratic Governor Josh Shapiro and state health officials have not recommended mask mandates, capacity limits, or other restrictions amid this surge. 

Pennsylvania voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2021 to limit the governor’s emergency powers, empowering state lawmakers to determine whether a disaster declaration relates to a pandemic or natural disaster.

Still, some Republicans are sounding the alarm about possible COVID rules.

According to Matt Jordan, head of Penn State’s News Literacy Initiative, these unsubstantiated claims are designed to rally conservative voters. 

“It’s really a rumor that is being floated out there as a content production strategy to generate content that their fans will engage with,” Jordan said. “And by engaging with it, they signal, ‘I’m part of the group,’ and they also can monetize this in various ways.”

Jordan said these unsubstantiated claims can be difficult for fact-checkers to responsibly verify.

“By creating these outrageous claims that not only will people amplify because they’re paranoid and afraid of this happening, but also people who think it is verifiably untrue will end up denouncing this and amplifying it,” he said. “So it’s a tricky thing to figure out how to debunk the alternative reality of these kinds of right-wing content producers without that rumor.”

Growing Republican trend part of time-tested strategy

Mastriano and Pennsylvania Freedom Caucus members are among a handful of Republican legislators nationwide (along with former President Trump) spreading disinformation about hypothetical COVID restrictions – despite no indication from any state government that mandates will return.

Matt Jordan said Republican lawmakers are using a century-old media technique called “agit-prop” – a portmanteau of “agitation” and “propaganda” – which originated in the Soviet Union during the 1930s.

“If your politics depends on outrage, you’re going to have to bait people with fake outrage,” Jordan said. “You go in, you pick a fight, people report on it, and then they report on the drama of it.”

Jordan expects the trend to continue as social media becomes increasingly personalized.

“People need to be aware that if they’re engaging with this stuff a lot, they’re going to get a lot more of it,” he said. “So if people are feeling like the world is burning down, when it’s probably not, then they might want to pump the brakes, go try another site, and be a little bit more deliberate about the way the things that they consume.”

In the last week, seven counties across three states (Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas) were designated as “high” risk of transmission due to increased COVID hospitalizations, according to the CDC. Those three states have Republican governors and majority Republican state legislatures who would dictate statewide COVID restrictions to varying degrees.

Last week, President Joe Biden announced plans to seek new funding from Congress to develop an updated COVID vaccine this fall. Moderna, Pfizer, and Novavax are also developing updated vaccines, which the Food and Drug Administration could authorize when they meet on Sept. 12.

If approved, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will consult a panel of independent vaccine experts who will make recommendations about who should receive the shots. The recommendations must be approved by the CDC director before the vaccines are introduced to the public.

Biden has not mentioned reinstating any pandemic restrictions or mandates.

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