Pa. House falls two votes shy of overturning Wolf’s restaurant occupancy veto

By: - October 20, 2020 7:27 pm

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For the fourth time, the Pennsylvania House has failed to override Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto of a bill limiting his authority to regulate public health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

All 109 Republicans joined with 24 Democrats to reject Democrat Wolf’s red pen on Tuesday. The 133-69 tally fell just two votes shy of a successful override of Wolf, the closest attempt yet.

The bill, which Wolf vetoed last week, would have allowed all restaurants, bars, hotels, social clubs and event venues — minus concert halls and nightclubs — to reopen at a minimum of 50 percent capacity while following federal and state safety guidelines, such as mask requirements.

The bill also would have overturned a Wolf directive that banned people from ordering alcohol unless they were sitting down for a meal, and loosened regulations to establish outdoor dining.

Over the summer, in hopes of forestalling a rise in cases to allow children to return to school, Wolf issued the alcohol sales order, and restricted occupancy to 25 percent as a precautionary measure.

‘We are already at a tipping point,’ Wolf says, as Pa. imposes new health restrictions on bars and restaurants

The order was met by immediate pushback from restaurant and bar owners, as well as lawmakers.

Since, the Wolf administration has allowed restaurants to reopen up to 50 percent capacity, matching the bill. But if the proposal became law, Wolf would be unable to limit restaurants again, as he did early in the pandemic when he restricted all establishments to takeout or delivery.

Wolf pointed to rising cases in Pennsylvania in his veto message, arguing, as he often has, that he must preserve his powers in case of a sudden, widespread resurgence of the coronavirus.

“If we do not prompt health and safety measures that reduce the spread of COVID-19, there will be a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, thereby ending our success and risking our health and our lives,” Wolf said in his veto message.

Cases are on the rise, both in Pennsylvania and nationally, as the weather gets colder, people retreat indoors, and the country enters traditional flu season.

According to Spotlight PA, a digital news outlet, new coronavirus cases have been on the rise for the past month.The state is now averaging more than 1,400 new cases a day, a total not seen since April.

On Monday, Wolf and state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine appealed to Pennsylvanians to wear masks and practice social distancing as they warned of a fall resurgence of the virus.

But Republicans continued to argue that Wolf’s orders showed government overreach, and that private businesses were equipped to protect their customers and employees.

Rep. Kurt Masser, R-Northumberland, whose family owns restaurant and catering operations, argued that as the winter holidays approached, “people will host [events] at their homes with no safeguards.” But “restaurants are equipped to hold these events safely.”

An industry survey published last month estimated that one in six restaurants nationwide has closed due to COVID-19.

Pa. saloon keepers call on Legislature to override Wolf’s bar, restaurant veto

The approaching season, Masser added, was when restaurants and event spaces could make up for lost revenue earlier in the year.

But federal data has shown that restaurants have been a vector of infection for the coronavirus. According to a study released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month, adults with COVID-19 were twice as likely to have reported eating in a restaurant as those who did not.

“Efforts to reduce possible exposures where mask use and social distancing are difficult to maintain, such as when eating and drinking, should be considered to protect customers, employees, and communities,” the study stated.

The veto override failed because 12 Democrats flipped their vote from a yes to a no, as Democrats stood by their governor.

“An economy can be revived, but the lives of these loved ones that we’ve lost can not be,” said House Minority Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia. He was a no both times.

The veto was Wolf’s 13th of the year. The House earlier tried to override Wolf on a bill reopening businesses in May, and two seperate bills in September to end the disaster declaration and eliminate Wolf’s ability to restrict crowd sizes at high school sporting events.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.