'Everybody needs to fight.' Anti-vaccine mandate advocates protest at Pa. state Capitol

Candy Woodall
Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau

HARRISBURG — Days after announcing a potential bid for Pennsylvania governor, state Sen. Doug Mastriano held his first major event — an anti-vaccine rally for so-called medical freedom. 

The "Medical Freedom Rally" rally on the state Capitol steps drew a handful of Republicans in the state House and Senate, a couple dozen reporters and about 100 people opposing medical mandates. 

Mastriano, R-Franklin, acted as an emcee at times, introducing fellow lawmakers and speakers. At other times, he echoed the words of former President Donald Trump, complaining about the media, making unproven claims about the pandemic and encouraging his audience to "fight" against "tyranny."

Not all of the speakers were from Pennsylvania, including Kyle and Stephanie Atteberry, a married pair of United Airlines pilots who said Tuesday they started their unpaid leave because they chose not to be vaccinated. 

The Atteberrys said they don't believe mandated vaccines are the appropriate way forward. Now, they are stuck in a limbo on unpaid leave and unable to apply for unemployment. 

More:Statewide masking order in Pa. schools set to end Jan. 17. Why Gov. Tom Wolf announced the change

Republicans leaders protest COVID mandates

Sen Doug Mastriano speaks during the Medical Freedom Rally at the Pennsylvania Capital November 9, 2021.

Mastriano and other Pennsylvania politicians said those are the people they are fighting for in the Legislature. They also called attention to the medical workers who were heroes during the pandemic and are now losing their jobs because they won't get vaccinated. 

“Harrisburg is not going to save you. You have to stand up and fight," said state Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-York.

She accused Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf of tyranny for lifting the school mask mandate on Jan. 17, saying it never should have been in place.

"Suddenly the virus is smart on Jan. 17” and won’t infect anyone, she said sarcastically. “Everybody needs to fight.”

Wolf on Monday said the statewide K-12 school masking order will end on Jan. 17, leaving it up to school districts to determine the path forward.

Protestors during the Medical Freedom Rally at the Pennsylvania Capital November 9, 2021.

The mask order took effect Sept. 7, when children younger than 12 weren't eligible for the vaccine. Now, children 5 and older can receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

“My administration made clear that we would continue to re-evaluate the status of the school mask mandate,” Wolf said in a statement Monday. “Now, we are in a different place than we were in September, and it is time to prepare for a transition back to a more normal setting.” 

The masking order will remain in effect for early learning programs and child care providers, which typically work with children younger than 5 who are not eligible for the vaccine.   

Data shows the COVID vaccine has been widely accepted by most Pennsylvanians, including a majority of healthcare workers who are vaccinated. Pennsylvania is ranked 5 out of 50 in U.S. states with the most vaccinations.

More:Pa. Senate leader Jake Corman set to announce run for governor as rival Mastriano explores bid

A push by Republicans on COVID safety measures

From the left, Kyle Atteberry, his wife Stephanie and their daughter Livia, age 2, speck during during the Medical Freedom Rally at the Pennsylvania Capital November 9, 2021. Kyle Atteberry is on unpaid leave from United after not complying with a vaccine mandate.

But there has been a vocal minority of Pennsylvanians who oppose the vaccine, often for various reasons. 

Several homemade signs at the rally Tuesday opposed what they claimed was government tyranny and authority. They also supported Trump, the former president who tried to overturn election results and repeatedly pushed to expand the power of the presidency and federal government.

The role and reach of government authority continues to be a top debate in Pennsylvania and across the country, and Mastriano on Tuesday encouraged his supporters to fight against that authority. 

He asked questions that led to boos of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, and Dr. Rachel Levine, the former Pennsylvania secretary of health who now works in the Biden administration. 

Mastriano compared Pennsylvania to communist East Germany, adding that he would fight against what he believes is Wolf acting like a "king." 

"Not on my watch," Mastriano said. "We will prevail in the end." 

But he acknowledged that fight would come with "great risk."

Protestors during the Medical Freedom Rally at the Pennsylvania Capital November 9, 2021.

Mastriano organized buses to the "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6 that preceded the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Though he condemned the violence that day, Mastriano has continued to defend Trump's debunked claims that the election was stolen. 

The state senator has repeatedly ignored or dodged questions about that, his candidacy and many other Pennsylvania issues from the USA TODAY Pennsylvania Capital Bureau for 10 months.

A bureau reporter and photographer tried again after the rally Tuesday and were turned away by people who identified themselves as Mastriano's personal security. 

Mastriano has been a vocal critic of Wolf during the pandemic, fighting against early mitigation efforts, such as masks, shutdowns and a pause on school sports.

Sen Judy Ward speaks during the Medical Freedom Rally at the Pennsylvania Capital November 9, 2021.

Now, the senator opposes vaccines and the federal vaccine mandate for employers, saying people are losing their jobs because of it. 

“This is how we win — by staying united right here,” Mastriano said to his supporters on the Capitol steps.

He compared the present moment to 1776 and closed the rally with a prayer.

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Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Pennsylvania Capital Bureau. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.

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