Open for business? Bill targeted at reopening car dealerships, barber shops get closer to Wolf’s desk

Pennsylvania Senate Chambers. Source: WikiMedia Commons

The state Senate gave its stamp of approval Wednesday to bills that could clear the way for vast swaths of businesses across Pennsylvania to reopen, though it rejected proposals to bolster protections for employees who feel unsafe at work or want to report non-compliance with federal safety guidelines. 

Two of the bills the Senate advanced with bipartisan support grant waivers to specific industries that had to shutter under an executive order Gov. Tom Wolf issued in March. 

A third measure, which split the Republican-controlled Senate neatly on party lines, allows county commissioners to lift Wolf’s stay-at-home orders without his permission. 

All three pieces of legislation must go to the House for concurrence votes before they can land on Wolf’s desk. 

The Democratic governor has already vetoed legislation that would let more businesses operate during the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this week, he also made clear his disapproval of county officials who intend to rush ahead of his statewide public health response by threatening to withhold federal funding.

But Republicans who championed the measures Wednesday were undeterred by the prospects of a veto. They said the bills would extend a lifeline to Pennsylvanians who have lost income during the pandemic, and restore local control to communities that chafe at Wolf’s shutdown orders.

“If the governor vetoes, he vetoes,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said. “It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stand tall and stand up with our communities.”

The most expansive bill the Senate passed Wednesday would grant Pennsylvania’s car dealerships, pet groomers, barbers and hair salons, garden centers and messenger services a blanket waiver from Wolf’s business shutdown order.

A Capital-Star analysis of federal employment data from 2019 found that the sectors included in the bill employed a combined 94,000 workers across the state, paying average wages that range from $12.31 for animal caretakers to $25 for car dealership employees.

Workplaces would still have to follow federal guidelines to create more space for employees and provide them with masks and gloves, but the bill does not include any enforcement measures or penalties for businesses that fail to comply. 

The bill advanced through the Senate by a 31-17 vote, which included support from Democrats like Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, who said her Lehigh Valley-based district “is in a smart place to handle” a targeted reopening of businesses. 

But Democrats tried to amend the legislation to guarantee whistleblower protections and unemployment benefits for workers who feel unsafe in non-compliant workplaces.

“The point is to protect people if they’re going to go back to work,” said Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks. “It’s just simply unfair to ask people to go into an environment where there is no guarantee that they will be protected.”

Each of the Democratic amendments met resistance from the Republican majority, whose floor leader said that state unemployment law already provides recourse for workers who feel they were terminated unjustly. 

Corman also said that businesses granted waivers under the bill would be held to the same standards as other workplaces that have been operating under Wolf’s shutdown orders. 

However, Wolf has said himself that the state cannot force businesses to comply with the guidelines his administration has issued, which call on workplaces to issue masks and gloves to employees and to reduce crowding in workspaces.   

As the Capital-Star has reported, even essential workers have had a hard time getting personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, said she could not support legislation reopening any business sector until the state had a steady supply chain of protective gear.

That’s why Muth opposed the bill reopening Pennsylvania’s real estate industry, which nonetheless passed by a 33-15 vote with support from a handful of Democrats.

Muth and the rest of her Democratic colleagues also opposed the measure allowing county governments to adopt local disease mitigation plans.

They argued that 67 individual mitigation plans would undercut the state’s public health response and overburden county governments, most of which do not have their own public health departments and rely on the state.   

Officials in a handful of Pennsylvania counties began announcing last week that they would stop enforcing Wolf’s shutdown orders and permit more businesses to reopen ahead of his timeline. 

Some of those officials walked back their plans after Wolf threatened to yank business licenses and withhold federal funding from non-compliant counties. 

But commissioners in Lebanon County voted Wednesday to move ahead with their own reopening plan, and a Beaver County commissioner told a Senate panel that his county planned to reopen this week in defiance of Wolf’s orders.  

Capital-Star reporter Stephen Caruso contributed to this report.