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Split Ticket: Reopening Economy Amid Pandemic Divides Western PA Voters

Jared Murphy and Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

Reopening the economy has become a polarizing issue, and how elected leaders handle the task could sway voters’ decisions at the ballot box in November. For our Split Ticket series, we asked four western Pennsylvania voters about how they view reopening strategies.

‘Reopening doesn’t mean people aren’t dying’

Credit Jared Murphy / 90.5 WESA
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Linda Bishop has been a Republican and a Democrat and describes her political background as "purple."

Even though complete shutdowns have been lifted in western Pennsylvania, Linda Bishop has no plans to change her habits. She and her husband, who has underlying health concerns, started isolating well before Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home order.

“Really what needs to happen for reopening and for me to feel safe is some kind of coordinated national plan,” she said.

Bishop is in her sixties, and lives in Mars, Pa. She’s retired on a fixed income, although some of her investments have tanked during the pandemic.

“We've made a lot of sacrifices these past couple of months,” she said. “We were basically buying time for our government to prepare."

Even so, she said, federal officials "haven't done the things that needed to be done to prepare for the reopening, like getting the testing and contact tracing in place. I don't feel like we're any better off than we were two-and-a-half months ago.”
Like Bishop, progressive Democrat Savannah Henry is wary of reopening the economy too soon, because she believes government inaction has disproportionately hurt people of color.

Credit Jared Murphy / 90.5 WESA
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Progressive Savannah Henry is from Erie, and is studying at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Even though we're reopening, it doesn't mean people aren't dying,” Henry said. “And a lot of the people who are dying are marginalized people and they're not getting proper [burials] because there are so many. That's the most scary thing.”

Henry will be a junior at the University of Pittsburgh this fall. She's majoring in English and Gender Studies, and is the president of the Planned Parenthood club. She has plans to hang out with some friends outside (and 6 feet apart) but she thinks recent protests to reopen the economy are ridiculous. She noted many of those at the demonstrations were not social distancing, and said the message itself is selfish.

“There was a sign that had chains alluding to slavery,” she said of the reopening protests in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. “What we're going through now isn't oppression: It's for the well being of everybody.”

Henry also points out how differently police have treated the white protesters at the reopening rallies compared to their handling of demonstrations led by people of color. That concern was brought into even sharper focus last weekend, when nationwide protests followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“People of color – who have been protesting forever – when they do protesting, guns are out and the police will arrest people simply for being there,” she said. “Whereas these people have their guns and they're not getting penalized or anything.”

‘American exceptionalism will take root again’

Credit Jared Murphy / 90.5 WESA
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Mary Henze voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and was a Democrat for decades before voting for Donald Trump in 2016.

Republican Mary Henze wants things to reopen now, and called Wolf a tyrant for imposing restrictions in the first place.

“I need to get out,” she said. “I've been so confined and so restricted that I've almost lost my mind."

She believes the reopening protests are justified.

“None of these people are out to kill anybody," she said. "They're my neighbors, I grew up with them."

Henze is in her fifties and lives in Jefferson Hills. She’s been on disability for a decade and says she and her son have relied on extra food-stamp money provided by the federal government during the pandemic. Henze said even though she has a compromised immune system, she still plans to start seeing friends and family.

“I have no fear,” she said. “If [the virus] is going to take me out, it'll take me out. But I'm not going to live behind plexiglass.”

Fellow Republican Ed Cwiklinski is also ready to socialize again. He’s in his forties and lives with his wife and young kids in Bethel Park. They’ve struggled to find work these past few months, but he’s looking forward to seeing friends and family.

Credit Jared Murphy / 90.5 WESA
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Ed Cwiklinski is a Republican who lives in Bethel Park. He's always voted for Republicans at the top of the ticket but has voted for some Democrats locally.

“I'd love to have people over here, love to have a barbecue,” Cwiklinski said. “I'll shake hands and hug people at this point and not worry about it.”

But he disagrees with Henze about whether the reopening protests were a good idea.

“I don't really know that they went about it the right way,” Cwiklinski said. “I wouldn't have shown up to the protest without a mask, I wouldn't have shown up to be around a bunch of people, and I would have definitely not taken a firearm to wield around. I think that sends a bad message.”

Still, Cwiklinski said the country should reopen, even if some people don’t feel like it’s safe yet.

“I'm very optimistic about the coronavirus – about the second wave not being a big deal. I know that American exceptionalism will take root again and I know the good working people of this country want to get back to work and thrive again.”

Epidemiologists are more cautious, and many fear a second wave of the virus could come this fall -- and be even deadlier than the first.

Lucy Perkins is an editor and also reports on federal government and elections for the Government and Accountability team. Before joining the WESA newsroom, she was an NPR producer in Washington, D.C., working on news programs like All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. You can reach her at lperkins@wesa.fm.
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