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Toomey, Reschenthaler Hail Reopening, Say COVID Response And Police Reform Calls Have Gone Too Far

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
Congressman Guy Reschenthaler

At a Friday-morning appearance outside a Washington County bakery, Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey and local Congressman Guy Reschenthaler hailed the state’s economic re-opening while complaining that much of the state’s shutdown had never really been necessary in the first place. And while they denounced the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, they showed little enthusiasm for protesters' calls to reform policing in its wake.

Standing maskless before a press corps whose members were all wearing masks, Toomey and Reschenthaler said the shutdown efforts went too far and took to long to be reversed.

Toomey acknowledged that “we didn’t fully understand the nature of the virus” in the early days of the pandemic. “But folks, it’s been a long time now that it’s been abundantly clear that we aren’t going to overwhelm our hospital systems” as happened in other countries. He said the worst impacts of the disease was “massively, overwhelmingly concentrated” among the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions, who could be protected with less extensive measures.

Reschenthaler went further, charging that “We should never be fooled again by the people that told us how to handle this pandemic. We knew right away that we weren’t going to have a situation like they had in Italy and Spain and elsewhere, because we knew that the American entrepreneurial spirit came through,” with businesse retooling to provide ventilators and other needed equipment.

“A lot of governors across the country in blue states overplayed their hand, crushed small businesses, because they turned into petty tyrants,” he added.

But Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease expert affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, said that while governors sometimes took steps that were “too heavy-handed,” those were driven by errors at the federal level, starting with the failure to test for, and respond to, the disease effectively at the beginning of the pandemic.

“Because of the early missteps at the federal level, cases were allowed to go undiagnosed and undetected,” he said. “Governors were left with a blunt tool because we didn’t test or diagnose back in January, February, and half of March. There were concerns that the health care system would be compromised in some parts of the country, and New York came very close. When it became clear that what happened in Italy wasn’t applicable to what happened in New York – and that what happened in New York wasn’t applicable to what happened in Pittsburgh, we saw governors scaling back.”

Asked by reporters about ongoing nationwide protests over police brutality, Toomey and Reschenthaler both said violence was on the decline, with Toomey saying there was no need to call out the military, as President Donald Trump has suggested he might seek to do. But while they lamented the Floyd's death, they gave little sign that they would respond to that and other deaths with new policies.

Toomey, for one, was asked if he would support a bid to scale back what is called “qualified immunity,” under which police can be cleared of civil-rights violations and other violations if they were acting in good faith. Many police-reform advocates say that rule makes it difficult to hold police accountable, and some Congressional Democrats say they will propose legislation to rewrite it.

But while qualified immunity is a doctrine established nationwide by the U.S. Supreme Court, Toomey said “the last thing we should do is have the federal government come in and dictate [to] local police. … If there’s a given community that needs to rethink their policies for their police force, fine, they should do that. But I don’t think we should try to federalize the local police force, diminish the accountability that they have to local elected officials.”

Reschenthaler, for his part, said he was concerned “the message of peaceful protesters is being diluted” by violence at protests. “Most people agree that that there’s police brutality and that needs to be brought down and eliminated” he said. But he expressed little enthusiasm for some of the reforms being proposed by demonstrators to do so.

He noted that he House Judiciary Committee, on which he sits, was set to hold hearings on the issue, and said, “I’m going to eagerly participate in that.” But he added, “I can tell you what’s the wrong thing to do and that’s to do what a lot of the far-left liberals want to do, and that’s defund the police. … What the police need is more funds for training, they have serious issues with mental illness,” including higher suicide rates and cases of PTSD. “That’s going to be my focus … but I’m looking forward to a vigorous hearing where all of this is discussed.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.