State Senate sends Wolf bill aimed at reopening Pa. businesses; Guv signals veto

Senate minority leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, and majority leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, on the Senate floor on March 25. More than half the Senate convened remotely for the session, where lawmakers passed legislation granting emergency relief to help hospitals, workers and schools cope with the COVID pandemic. Photo by Doug Gross, Senate Republican Photographer.

(*This story has been updated to reflect Gov. Tom Wolf’s announcement that he will veto a reopening bill now headed for his desk)

The Republican-controlled state Senate voted along party lines Wednesday to approve bills that would reopen many businesses across the state and give county officials greater influence in Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 response plans, even though there’s no guarantee Gov. Tom Wolf will let either one become law. 

During a four-hour session that most members attended remotely, the Senate granted its approval to a bill expanding Pennsylvania’s list of “essential” businesses, which are the only ones allowed to legally operate under a business shutdown the Democratic governor issued last month.

The legislation lifts its business criteria from an advisory issued last month by an agency in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The Republican-controlled House passed it Tuesday.

*The bill now goes to Wolf, who said through a spokesperson Wednesday that he plans to veto it once it lands on his desk, the PA Post reported Wednesday. 

The Senate also passed a bill convening a task force with appointees from the legislative, executive and judicial branches to advise the state on its COVID-19 response. 

The latest on COVID-19 in Pa.: 26,490 confirmed cases in 67 counties

Thanks to an amendment senators approved on party lines, it also allows county governments in Pennsylvania to adopt their own COVID-19 mitigation plans.

County officials can opt not to adopt such plans and instead follow statewide orders issued by Wolf.

But the measure grants county commissioners near-total control over business operations, since they can permit essentially any business to open as long as it follows workplace safety standards issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Republican lawmakers argued that all corners of Pennsylvania are reeling from layoffs and furloughs that followed Wolf’s March 19 order to shutter non-essential businesses, even though not all counties across the state have seen COVID-19 cases in the same numbers.

They insisted that local governments should be able to set their own standards to restart economic activity. 

“[Local] officials who are on the ground should be able to determine what is the best way to move forward,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said. “Let them decide locally.”

Most of Pennsylvania’s 26,000 COVID-19 cases to date have been concentrated in urban areas, but state health officials have identified cases in all 67 counties.

Senate Democrats railed against the measure on Wednesday, saying it undercut Wolf’s mitigation strategy and defied the guidance of federal and state health officials.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, also warned that a “mish mash” of local policies would pit Pennsylvania counties against one another if residents started to travel across county lines to get goods and services they can’t get close to home. 

The association representing Pennsylvania’s county commissioners expressed ambivalence about the measure Wednesday, implying that they did not seek unilateral power to buck state mandates.

“[These] important decisions must be made regionally, and a comprehensive collaborative process must be developed first that brings counties, the legislature and the administration to the table to collectively determine what is best for the health, safety and economy of the residents of the commonwealth,” Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said in an emailed statement.

Wolf voiced his skepticism of the bill even before the Senate amended it. He and other Democrats say the inter-branch task force it creates would favor the GOP, since the top leaders in the General Assembly and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court are Republicans. 

Before the bill can land on Wolf’s desk, House lawmakers must vote to concur the Senate’s new amendment.

The legislative action caps weeks of acrimony between the Republican-controlled General Assembly and the Democratic governor, who is armed with expansive powers under the statewide emergency declaration he issued on March 6, the day Pennsylvania health officials confirmed the state’s first two cases of COVID-19. 

So far, Wolf has used those powers to shutter schools, close non-essential businesses and authorize the limited release of state prisoners. 

But Republicans say his policies for businesses have lacked transparency and accountability.

The Wolf administration revised its initial list of “essential” businesses following pushback, and also launched a waiver process that critics have labeled chaotic and inconsistent. 

Republican lawmakers have called on Wolf to expand the list of businesses that are allowed to operate during the pandemic, and to release the list of businesses who sought and received waivers exempting them from the order. When Wolf declined on both counts, they sought to expand the list through legislation.

Members of Wolf’s own party have said that his policies could be more transparent. Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, said Wednesday that she was frustrated with the waiver process. 

But Williams and other Senate Democrats said that Pennsylvania ought not reopen its businesses until it can offer stronger protections for workers, including broader paid sick leave programs and protective gear for the healthcare, food service, and other public-facing industries. 

Wolf told reporters Tuesday that the state could not safely reopen its economy until it had widespread testing to diagnose COVID-19 and detect immunity — a goal he said could be months away. 

For weeks, Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 testing rate was below the national average. Does it matter?