Pennsylvania state lawmaker organized a crowd of more than 150, defying Gov. Wolf’s orders

YORK, Pa. – A Pennsylvania state representative appears to have defied Gov. Tom Wolf’s order prohibiting large gatherings of people Saturday evening when he organized a meeting to talk about reopening businesses in York County.

More than 150 people attended the meeting. The vast majority were not wearing masks, and many were shaking hands, hugging and sitting close together in violation of social distancing guidelines.

As a bird circled above inside the banquet hall, state Rep. Mike Jones, R-York Township, fired up the audience with partisan attacks on Wolf, York Mayor Michael Helfrich and others who oppose quickly reopening businesses in Pennsylvania in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first-term state House member said elected officials in York County this week will follow the lead of Lebanon County officials, who recently vowed to move the county to “yellow” status, allowing many businesses to reopen.

York County is currently in “red” status, which allows only life-sustaining businesses to open. But he cautioned the audience, consisting mostly of business owners, that moving to yellow status “means almost nothing” – particularly to owners of bars, restaurants and salons.

In a rambling opening address, Jones bemoaned the fact that Scott Wagner lost the gubernatorial race to Wolf, called Wolf’s handling of the pandemic a “travesty,” criticized Mayor Helfrich for “drinking the governor’s Kool-Aid” with his cautious approach to the pandemic, and said the state Department of Health did not have the best and brightest medical minds working on the state’s response.

Jones, who attended a ReOpen Pa rally in Harrisburg April 20, said most Republican state lawmakers are working to reopen businesses via various pieces of legislation.

“Republicans are voting for business; the Democrats aren’t,” he said. “But we’ve seen some cracks in the armor. We do not have veto-proof votes. And we don’t even have 100 percent of the Republicans that have the guts to vote the right way on everything.”

“I think we got Wolf on the ropes,” he added. “The last 48 hours has been extremely encouraging. It’s just like a boxing match. It’s time to knock him out. Because when you call his bluff and you fight, they cave. They don’t have the horses. They don’t have the soldiers. They don’t have the guts. … The bark is way, way worse than the bite.”

Jones said opening businesses is not about profit but about economic survival of the community.

“When they talk about us wanting to put profit over people, I’m disgusted by that statement. Because I am convinced that we are now at a tipping point, that we are killing and devastating more lives than COVID ever will.”

He said a study commissioned by the York County Economic Alliance projected 17%-31% of area businesses that were closed because of the pandemic will not reopen or survive.

He also criticized the state for not pulling able people out of nursing homes as the pandemic deepened, “but we did it with prisoners, didn’t we? We had to pull prisoners out, but we didn’t pull people out of nursing homes to protect them.”

Jones lauded those who serve in the military and contrasted soldiers to citizens who eschew social contact to avoid contracting the new coronavirus. “We’ve got men and women today dying for us, and now we deal with grown, able-bodied men who don’t have the guts to get carry-out. I personally had enough of that,” he said to applause from the crowd.

Jones said the purpose of calling the public meeting was to gauge the feelings of the business community about reopening.

The lawmaker lauded York County District Attorney David Sunday for issuing a statement last week explaining why he doesn’t believe his office has legal grounds to enforce the governor’s closure orders.

Jones said he talked to Sunday the night before the meeting. He also said York Area Regional Police were aware of the meeting and raised no objections to it. YARP Chief Timothy Damon could not be reached for comment.

Sunday said Jones told him he would be meeting with some business people, but he said he was surprised to hear of a banquet hall meeting with more than 150 people. “I’m sad to hear he did that,” said Sunday, who emphasized that his office adheres to social distancing guidelines.

“I am not suggesting publicly that we defy any orders,” Jones said in his speech and cautioned that he as a non-attorney is not qualified to give legal advice to businesses on opening in defiance of closure orders.

“I don’t mind sitting in jail for a couple of weeks, but I’d rather not sit there for a couple of years,” he said.

For his part, York Mayor Helfrich said such a public meeting would not be permitted in the city and was glad Jones’ meeting was not held there. He said he takes his lead on the pandemic from scientists rather than business people or other elected officials.

“When I took office, I took an oath to uphold the constitution of Pennsylvania,” Helfrich said, “and the governor’s orders are law, upheld by decisions of the Supreme Court, so there’s no question my mind what my lawful duty is to do.”

Jones could not be immediately reached after the meeting for further comment. The governor’s office could not be reached immediately for comment.

*story by USA Today