Pa.’s ‘Better Angels’ COVID strategy is a failure. It’s time to bring the hammer down | Wednesday Morning Coffee

November 18, 2020 7:16 am

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine briefs reporters on Monday, 10/26/20 (screen capture)

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

On Tuesday, as she laid out new travel restrictions and masking requirements to try to tame the raging fires of the COVID-19 pandemic, state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine once again appealed to Pennsylvanians’ better angels, asking them to come together in common cause to fight a virus that’s claimed the lives of 9,355 of their fellow citizens and sickened more than 258,000 of them since March.

“We all are blessed to have freedoms in this country, but freedoms come with responsibilities,” Levine said during an online news briefing. “We all have a responsibility to work for the common good, and right now, that’s following these guidelines.”

Levine’s remarks came the same day that the White House Coronavirus Task Force pronounced the virus’ spread in the United States “aggressive [and] unrelenting,” Levine told journalists, adding the public health experts were seeing “expanding broad community spread across the country, reaching most counties, without evidence of improvement but rather further deteriorations.”

And yet, you didn’t have to look any further than the comments of the Health Department’s Facebook page to see how some commonwealth residents were taking the news, and why it underlines a fundamental failure in the administration’s containment strategy to date.

“It’s not a law to wear masks. It’s a strong recommendation. Wear one if you want BUT do not force ppl to wear them. I’ll continue being mask-free breathing fresh air,” a commenter named Samantha Hamburger, of Troy, Pa., in Bradford County, wrote.

Hers was among the more polite responses.

Take, for instance, Justin Mayer, of Levittown, Pa., who asked whether the agency had heard of the “go f yourself app? Go to hell!” as he responded to a separate post by the agency asking Pennsylvanians to download its COVID-19 tracking application.

With the exception of the darkest days of the pandemic, when the Pennsylvania State Police were dispatched to warn and cite non-essential businesses defying mandatory shutdown orders, Levine and Gov. Tom Wolf have repeatedly appealed to Pennsylvanians’ civic-mindedness to help fight the spread of COVID-19.

As unpleasant as it could be, the hard-line approach worked. It slowed the spread of the virus. And with COVID-19 once more raging out of control in Pennsylvania — and across the nation — it’s time to say it out loud: Asking nicely has failed. It isn’t working. Wolf and Levine need to bring the hammer down again. And soon.

(Pa. Health Dept. Facebook, screen capture)

During Tuesday’s news conference, Levine claimed she could order people into quarantine if the need arose. And while the state wasn’t “looking to take people to court,” Levine nonetheless added that “we have that authority,” the Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso reported.

If that’s true, then the only question worth asking is what Levine and Wolf are waiting for? Seven thousand cases a day? Is 10,000 deaths a nice, round number before they use the authority they claim to have?

Admittedly, a harder-line approach in Pennsylvania isn’t without its issues, notably for the businesses that might be called upon to enforce them. Kevin Levy, an attorney for the mega-firm Saul, Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, who tracks the state’s COVID-19 policy, told the Capital-Star.

“The original COVID restrictions were ‘draconian’ by [Wolf’s] own admission, but we’ve set new COVID records virtually day after day in November. It’s probably not the best strategy for the government to fine or arrest folks for not wearing a mask or not socially distancing,” Levy said during a brief interview. “But at the same time, it’s not clear that businesses have the resources to enforce the state requirements. Dr. Levine reminded us again [Tuesday] that she has the authority to issue those more aggressive restrictions. But we still haven’t seen any of that, and I don’t think that anyone should leave [Tuesday’s] press conference thinking that the Commonwealth is going to follow through on [the] new restrictions and enforce these new orders.”

But as Levy also noted, Pennsylvanians will be disinclined to cooperate if they know that Levine’s edicts don’t have any real teeth to them.

“Due respect to Secretary Levine, but if you issue an ‘executive order,’ [and] tell folks that you’re not going to enforce it and that you’re going to hope people ‘self-police’ themselves, you haven’t actually issued an executive order, you’ve issued a press release,” Levy wrote on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon.

And as one expert in human behavior points out, unless there are teeth attached to such orders, deeply seated psychological factors automatically make some people disinclined toward civic-mindedness.

Rep. Russ Diamond delivers a speech on the Pa. House floor in 2017. (Courtesy of Pa. House)

“People do everything they can to avoid feeling powerless, to [avoid] confronting the truth of death,” Abigail Hoffsommer, a therapist and social worker from Ridley Park, Delaware County, told the Capital-Star on Tuesday. “And if they’re given an out to believe they have a choice, they will go with the thing that will give them the feeling of more power and control over their mortality. So it’s easy to fall into these conspiracy theories, because it’s a comfort.”

Add in the deep political polarization surrounding mask-wearing and the pandemic that’s prevailed at the highest levels of government, and the pleas for voluntary compliance become that much harder, Hoffsommer argued.

“I don’t believe that a substantial difference will be made in people’s behavior, until they start seeing leaders on both sides of the spectrum leading by example,” she said.

She’s right. Republicans on Capitol Hill committed a homicidal level of policy malpractice by not standing up to the White House. Legislative Republicans in Pennsylvania abetted that with their repeated efforts to stymie Wolf’s mitigation policies, and by failing to denounce the anti-mask crazies in their midst who peddled death dressed up as personal liberty.

Other countries, such as the United Kingdom, have struggled with similar challenges. That country recently went back into lockdown. That came on top of measures, instituted in September, intended to mitigate the spread of the virus. They included closing pubs at 10 p.m. and the forcible closing of businesses deemed not “COVID-secure,” Andrew Lee, a public health expert at the University of Sheffield, wrote in a recent op-Ed examining the carrot-and-stick approach taken by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government.

“Some may argue that the economic costs of control measures are excessive, but on the flip side, while it may be possible to revive an economy, it is not possible to resurrect the dead,” Lee wrote. “There is no evidence that the lethality of this virus is waning. While the population may be increasingly fed up with disease control requirements, the virus has not changed.”

The same circumstances prevail in the United States, where despite cheering news of vaccines and new therapies, hospitalizations are rising, and the country has seen an average of more than 900 deaths a day since the pandemic began.

“It’s becoming pretty clear that Pennsylvanians’ better angels aren’t delivering,” Levy said.

Wolf and Levine have one job: Delivering. It’s past time that enforcement comes with actual teeth. If Republicans had a conscience, they’d join them.

Enough. Enough death. There will be far too many empty tables this holiday season. Enough.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
Pennsylvania’s outgoing Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm, has accused Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jeffersonof publicly defaming and derailing her career after she staked out positions that put her at odds with his office, Elizabeth Hardison reports. The Senate voted Monday, along party lines, against reappointing Storm to a second, six-year term. Scarnati has denied the accusations.

Stephen Caruso has the full story on the state Health Department’s new COVID-19 travel and mask guidelines. Caruso also has what you need to know about a state Supreme Court ruling siding with Philly elections officials over the Trump campaign on a ballot-counting dispute.

Black-owned businesses in Philadelphia say the Kenney administration’s new COVID-19 mitigation orders are going to be disastrous, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

On our Commentary Page this morning, former Pennsylvania journalist Benjamin Pontz says Gov. Tom Wolf could learn a thing or two from the young Tom Wolf’s doctoral dissertation on dealing with the Legislature during the pandemic. Opinion regular Bruce Ledewitz waxes rhapsodic about those days when America had workable governing majorities and hopes for their return. And counties need way less partisanship and way more partnership to fix election issuesLisa Schaefer, of the Pa. County Commissioners Association, writes.

(Image via The Philadelphia Gay News)

A very rusty Rudy Giuliani made his first appearance in federal court in decades on Tuesday. It didn’t go wellThe Inquirer has the details.
An Allegheny County judge has resigned the day before he was set to go on trial for misconduct charges before the state’s Judicial Conduct Board, the Post-Gazette reports.
PennLive looks at one central Pennsylvania nursing home that’s doing all the right things, but still is getting hit by COVID-19.
The Morning Call runs the numbers on the record-shattering voter turnout in Pennsylvania.
Luzerne County charted 223 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, the Citizens-Voice reports.

Here’s your #Pittsburgh Instagram of the Day:


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by VisitPITTSBURGH (@visitpittsburgh)

Some 750K votes later, Philadelpha’s ballot count is officially over, WHYY-FM reports.
A GoErie opinion contributor argues (correctly) that baseless conspiracy theories undermine our politics.
talks to the state’s largest health system, UPMC, about its preparations for COVID-19 and the recent increase in hospitalizations.
The Washington County Courthouse has re-imposed its pandemic restrictions as cases increase, the Observer-Reporter reports.
Philadelphia schools Superintendent William Hite’s name is being floated as a potential education secretary in the incoming Biden administration, PoliticsPA reports.   
Immigration advocates made electoral gains last weekbut also are facing pushback, reports.  
A top U.S. cyber-security official debunked election fraud lies. Naturally, the spoiled child in the White House fired him. NYMag’s Intelligencer has the story.

What Goes On.
The state House and Senate each come in at 11 a.m. this morning.
As ever, here’s a look at the day’s committee action. First up, the House:
Call of the Chair: House Appropriations Committee; House State Government Committee
In the Senate;
Off the Floor: 
Senate Appropriations Committee

You Say it’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to longtime Friend O’the Blog, Brett Marcy, of Mechanicsburg, Pa. Congratulations, sir, and enjoy the day.

Heavy Rotation.
An amazing document of the American indiepop underground of the early 1980s, the newly released compilation ‘Strum and Thrum,’ is a joy to listen to from end to end. Among the bands, Mississippi’s The Windbreakers (named for the jacket, not the other thing you’re thinking) were one of the best. I’m also privileged to call them good friends. Here’s their classic “All That Stuff.”

Wednesday’s Gratuitous Soccer Link.
Apple TV’s soccer comedy ‘Ted Lasso‘ is a big hit. But it’s not doing the American game, which is steadily gaining respect, any favorsThe Guardian’s Graham Ruthven argues.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.