The state legislature sent a bill to Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday that could reopen a significant number of businesses across the state, with Republicans disregarding the warnings of the state’s top health official that the move would put “more lives at risk.”
The legislation, which garnered final approval from the Senate along party lines, would redefine essential businesses and provide a roadmap for employers to reopen as long as they take certain safety precautions as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those changes would allow most construction projects to proceed and would allow companies that did not receive a waiver but fall under federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency guidelines to reopen.
It’s unclear whether Wolf will sign the legislation, against the advice of his own administration and Democratic party leaders. If he vetoes the bill, Republicans do not have enough members to override his veto.
Wolf on Wednesday did not answer a question during a daily briefing about whether he would veto the bill. He told reporters Tuesday he would consider the legislation once it reaches his desk, adding “if we don’t do this right, the economy is going to be in worse shape than it is now.”
Democrats decried the legislation as premature and unsafe, since the state already lacks adequate testing and personal protective equipment for front-line workers. The bill also runs counter to state and federal health experts, who say a number of safety measures — including greatly increased testing and contact tracing — must be in place before a reopening.
There is not currently a robust system for either of those things in Pennsylvania.
In March, Wolf closed all but “life-sustaining” businesses as the coronavirus spread across the state, shutting down a large swath of the economy. In response to initial criticism, the administration opened a waiver process for businesses not considered essential. Those decisions, however, were made in secret and have been criticized as inconsistent and unfair.
The Republican majority as well as some Democrats have grown frustrated with that waiver process, in part because of claims that it has allowed big-box stores to remain open while forcing small businesses with fewer employees to shutter.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) cited the waiver process and the administration’s refusal to release information about how those waivers were granted or denied, and who received them, as motivation for passing the measure.
“This process has failed,” Corman said. “It has not been transparent or consistent. What we’re trying to accomplish is to set a standard, a nationally recognized health standard about what can be open and what cannot be open.”
In a letter to the legislature sent last week, state Secretary of Health Rachel Levine advised lawmakers against broadening guidelines for what constitutes an essential business and said that it would have a “devastating impact” on public health in the state.
“Encouraging increased social movement of Pennsylvanians at this time by reopening a significant amount of businesses would be reckless and irresponsible,” Levine said in the letter. “The decision to shutter non-life sustaining businesses that support families across this commonwealth was a painful one, but before we can save livelihoods we must save lives.”
The House passed the bill Tuesday along party lines, with Democratic members attempting to add personal protective equipment, hazard pay, and workers’ compensation amendments, which a Republican leader said would be “taken up in subsequent bills.”
The Senate on Wednesday also planned to consider a bill that would create a “cost and recovery” task force made up of members from each branch of government. Republican lawmakers amended the legislation to allow each county to create their own plan to reopen local economies, meaning the bill needs to return to the House. Democrats opposed the plan.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) said the state is not yet prepared to handle the surge of COVID-19 cases that could arrive if businesses begin to open.
“These decisions should be made by health professionals, not by county executives,” he said. “It is not safe to reopen businesses when we do not have widespread testing or [personal protective equipment].”
The passage of the legislation nearly along party lines illustrates a growing divide on how the state should respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans say they are attempting to clean up what they see as a flawed waiver process while protecting public health and the economy at the same time. Democrats see these efforts to reopen businesses — against Levine and other health experts’ advice — as premature and fear they will end up endangering workers who will be forced to go back to work.
Wolf this week joined a coalition of East Coast governors in forming a pact to plot how to safely reopen the states’ economies. On Wednesday, he defended his decision-making on closures and the waiver process.
“Unlike other states in the nation, we’re not just handing out a list and saying this is the way it is,” he said during a daily briefing. “We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure that we are keeping Pennsylvanians safe. We’re doing that by staying home and making sure the businesses that remain open are absolutely essential.”