In May 2020, when roughly one-third of all Pennsylvania businesses were closed due to the state's heavy-handed COVID restrictions, the state's attorney general encouraged residents to rat out their neighbors for breaking the rules.
"See a #COVID19 health and safety violation? Report it!" Josh Shapiro tweeted, along with instructions for how narcs could report such violations to local law enforcement, the state Department of Health, and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). "Following safety guidelines is how we'll get through this together," he added.
As the invocation of law enforcement suggests, those weren't really guidelines at all. Lots of states took aggressive action to limit social interactions in the early days of the pandemic, but few states went further than Pennsylvania. On March 19, 2020, Gov. Tom Wolf and his top public health officials drew up an arbitrary list of "non-life-sustaining" businesses that would be forced to close until further notice—many were not allowed to reopen for months, and then had to endure (or ignore) further state-mandated shutdowns during the holiday season. Federal labor data would later show that only Michigan and Puerto Rico saw a greater number of business closures due to government mandates during those first few months of the pandemic.
Publicly, Shapiro encouraged Pennsylvanians to report their neighbors for violating those lockdowns. Professionally, he went to state and federal courts (as was his duty as attorney general) to assert Wolf's authority to issue those shutdown orders.
Now that he's running for governor, however, Shapiro says that he was privately against it all.
"This is an area where I think folks got it wrong," Shapiro said of school and business shutdowns in an interview with the Associated Press. On mask and vaccine mandates, Shapiro told the A.P.'s Marc Levy that he believed the state needed to "educate" and "empower" individuals to make the best decisions for themselves.
"To me, that's the approach we need to take more broadly as a public, which is to educate, empower and respect people's personal decisions and respect their personal freedom to make those choices," Shapiro told the A.P.
There are two ways to view Shapiro's comments.
Perhaps he's admitting to having learned an important lesson about governing from having an up-close view of the Wolf administration's heavy-handed and unpopular COVID policies—so unpopular that state lawmakers and the public teamed up to pass a pair of constitutional amendments to limit future governors from taking similar actions.
On the other hand, this sure smells like some really convenient campaign trail retconning of the past two-plus years.
Even though we should be willing to cut Shapiro some slack for having to go to court to defend Wolf's policies—one of his recent predecessors as Pennsylvania attorney general, Kathleen Kane, tried refusing to defend state laws she didn't like and that didn't end well for her—the rest of this doesn't hold up to scrutiny. As the state's top legal officer, Shapiro surely had a place at the table as the emergency orders and mandatory business closures were being hashed out.
So when Shapiro says "folks got it wrong," he's obviously trying to distance himself from his own culpability.
Even if he initially believed those extreme measures were necessary but later had a change of heart, he could have registered his objections with reporters at any time. And if he truly objected to defending those policies, he could have resigned his post, as at least one other member of Wolf's administration did in response to lockdowns.
What's really happening here is that Shapiro is being forced to respond to a line of attack from his gubernatorial opponent, Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R–Fayetteville). Trailing in the polls, Mastriano is hoping to make up ground by reminding Pennsylvanians just how much they disliked the state's COVID policies and by tying Shapiro to those decisions. He's likely trying to follow the same playbook as Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, the Republican who scored an unexpected victory last year after pledging to end mask mandates and school closures.
Shapiro distancing himself from the policies of the Wolf administration makes a cynical kind of political sense. It is another signal of just how untenable lockdown policies always were in a democratic system. His awareness of the importance of personal freedom is even perhaps an encouraging sign. But he ought to own up to being wrong.
It wasn't "folks" who screwed up Pennsylvania's response to COVID, forced businesses to close, and encouraged neighbors to snitch on one another for the crime of simply trying to earn a living. It was, at least in part, Josh Shapiro.