Wolf is still counting on Pa. to follow pandemic rules, but cops are on standby

    Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a press conference on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020 in Susquehanna Township. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

    SUSQUEHANNA TWP., Pa — Flanked by two police cruisers, Gov. Tom Wolf, cabinet secretaries and police officials had a message for Pennsylvanians: Don’t make us enforce our own COVID-19 health rules.

    “We know we can’t arrest or cite our way out of this pandemic and its impact on Pennsylvanians,” Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Col. Scott Price said during a press conference at the municipality’s police headquarters Monday.

    “Our goal is to maintain voluntary compliance through mutual respect for one another,” Price added.

    Price’s comments echoed a message that the Wolf administration has tried to get the public to absorb for the entire pandemic.

    The state has been under some kind of public health guidance since March, when Wolf ordered sweeping business closures, followed by a stay-at-home order.

    Those measures have been lifted, and they’ve been replaced with new rules requiring people to wear masks nearly everywhere. Wolf’s administration has also imposed restrictions on business occupancy and operation.

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    But the orders haven’t been accompanied by  stern enforcement. In fact, workers have cited lax safety enforcement, even as Republican lawmakers argue the regulations are unnecessary government overreach.

    All told, according to State Police data, the top commonwealth law enforcement agency has issued around 900 warnings for breaking state policies, and just 17 citations.

    Also on hand Monday with Wolf was Susquehanna Township Public Safety Director Rob Martin. He said his department has yet to issue any citations for not wearing a mask, but had to take action on some restaurants. The department’s officers are working to achieve compliance through persuasion, Martin said.

    “We’re just trying to make an ethical appeal for everyone to work together,” he added.

    So far, enforcement has disproportionately fallen on liquor license holders, who have received nearly half of the warnings, all since July 1.

    Bars and restaurants have faced some of the toughest regulatory hurdles amid the pandemic. In mid-July, citing a potential second wave of the virus, Wolf ordered all liquor license holders to cut their legal occupancy rate down from 50 percent to just 25 percent.

    Wolf also mandated that customers can only order drinks at a bar while eating a meal.

    The orders have frustrated bar owners, such as Jim Delisio Jr., who owns the Racehorse Tavern in York County.

    “The rules don’t even make any sense,” Delisio, also a board member of the state tavern association, told the Capital-Star. “How is the virus smart enough to know if you are eating a cheeseburger?”

    Extra scrutiny on eateries is in the pipeline. Speaking Monday, Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding said that the department had signed an agreement with the Department of Health for the department’s food inspectors to also enforce state COVID-19 workplace safety regulations.

    Previously, Redding said, department employees could only educate on violations beforehand. But now, the inspectors, who typically ensure sanitary conditions in restaurants, could also issue citations for compliance with mask or social distancing requirements.

    Redding said the move came as the state grappled with some business owners needing more than just an education of new health standards. 

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    But the fact remains that Wolf and his department heads reiterated multiple times they hope to use a light touch, and not drag business owners — or seemingly anyone — into the legal system for compliance.

    Violations are legally enforceable, Wolf said, but “like everything else in our society, it basically works because almost everybody says ‘you know, we’re going to pull together here.’”

    As for the police cars?

    “We’re going to enforce those rules to the extent we can,” Wolf said. “But again, what I’ve always been saying is what the people of Pennsylvania do each and every day that’s going to make us successful in this virus.”

    So far, about 7,200 people have died of the coronavirus in Pennsylvania since March.