Wolf: Counties that reopen in defiance of stay home orders are ‘surrendering’ to COVID-19

Gov. Tom Wolf addresses the state during an online news conference on Monday, 5/12/20 (screen capture)

(Updated, 1:27 p.m., 5/12/20: This story has been updated with additional information from the Wolf administration and Cumberland County Commissioners. Updated again at 1:56 p.m., with comment from House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, and U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, R-12th District. Updated at 2:44 p.m. with comment from Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre)

Facing a growing rebellion from county officials who say they plan to defy state stay-at-home orders, Gov. Tom Wolf threw down the gauntlet Monday accusing those leaders of “choosing to surrender” in the fight against the coronavirus, and were jeopardizing their share of federal relief money.

In an online news briefing, the Democratic governor also said that non-essential business owners could be putting their state-issued licenses, occupancy permits and their insurance at risk if they choose to resume operation before their counties are moved from red to yellow zone status by the administration.

“We Pennsylvanians are in a fight for our lives. The enemy is a virus bent on destroying us,” Wolf said. “Some of us have chosen to surrender to the virus. They are choosing to desert in the middle of a war that we Pennsylvanians are beginning to win.”

On Friday, 24 counties in north-central and northwestern Pennsylvania took their first steps out of lockdown, with businesses being allowed to resume operation with social distancing and mask-wearing requirements in place. On Friday, 13 additional counties in southwestern Pennsylvania, including Allegheny County, are slated to follow suit. That would have meant that 37 of the state’s 67 counties would have moved to yellow status.

Over the weekend, however, officials in several counties who believe their low case counts merit reopening announced plans to move ahead on their own. County district attorneys in York and Lancaster counties, along with the elected prosecutor in Beaver County, announced that they would not enforce violations of those orders.

Officials in Dauphin County said they planned to move into the yellow phase ahead of any administration order, PennLive reported. County sheriffs in Perry and Cumberland counties also said they would not enforce violations, PennLive reported.

County commissioners in Cumberland County said they planned to stay in red status, PennLive reported later on Monday afternoon.

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Through midday Monday, the state Department of Health had confirmed 57,154 cases of COVID-19 in all 67 Pennsylvania counties, with 3,731 confirmed fatalities.

“This is not the time to give up. This is not the time to surrender. We are fighting a war that has taken the lives of too many people,” Wolf said. “It calls for sacrifice. It calls for a heroism we never have seen before. It calls for us to fight together. I intend to keep fighting. The overwhelming majority of my fellow Pennsylvanians intend to keep fighting.”

Wolf’s latter comment appeared to be a reference to a Fox News poll last month showing 69 percent of Pennsylvanians approving of Wolf’s management of the pandemic. Nearly two-thirds of respondents, 62 percent, said Wolf’s stay at home order struck the right balance.

On Monday, Wolf said he would not pursue litigation against counties that take unilateral action. But he did say those counties risked losing any share of discretionary funding included in the federal CARES Act.

“Discretionary funding won’t go to counties that are operating illegally,” Wolf said.

The governor had equally sharp words for businesses owners in red zone counties who might be considering following local officials’ lead: Their license status “depends on your doing everything you can to keep patrons safe.”

Violating the orders is “not only morally wrong, it’s bad for business.” Wolf further warned that “businesses who follow the whims of politicians will find themselves uninsured,” if something goes wrong before they have legal clearance from the state to reopen.

In a statement issued after Wolf’s news conference, the administration offered additional clarity to the governor’s remarks, saying that:

  • “Counties will not be eligible for federal stimulus discretionary funds the state receives and intends to provide to counties with populations of fewer than 500,000.
  • “Businesses in counties that do not abide by the law will no longer be eligible for business liability insurance and the protections it provides. The Pennsylvania Department of Insurance released details of this earlier today.
  • “Restaurants that reopen for dine-in service in counties that have not been authorized to reopen will be at risk of losing their liquor license.
  • “County residents receiving unemployment compensation will be able to continue to receive benefits even if their employer reopens. Employees may choose not to return out of concern for personal safety and safety of co-workers.”

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“Insurance doesn’t pay for illegal acts,” Wolf said.

In a statement, House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, welcomed Wolf’s action.

“The governor is doing everything he must to lead us in this war against a deadly enemy. Pennsylvanians have made untold sacrifices and ending the fight now would betray all those efforts and weaken our defenses,” Dermody said. “It’s beyond reckless to assume that areas of our state are in the clear without any evidence to prove that. The enemy waits silently for the next chance to attack. Rash decisions made against the weight of medical advice will open the door for even more tragedy. That must not happen.”

In a joint statement, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, to stop “threatening local officials and communities.”

“Pennsylvania residents have done an outstanding job of rising to the cause of reducing community spread and flattening the curve. Instead of threatening local officials and communities, the Governor should listen to the outcry in response to his dogma,” the two lawmakers said.

“Local elected officials are the ones hearing from their neighbors and communities instead of sitting in Harrisburg or on Mount Wolf. Instead of name calling, he needs to follow our lead and engage with local elected officials who are the best measure when it comes to knowing if their communities can return to their livelihoods in a safe way,” they continued.

Scarnati and Corman said the GOP-controlled chamber will “move ahead this week with legislation that puts the power to open communities and employers into the hands of local decision-makers who know their area best.  Our approach will allow counties – in consultation with local emergency and health officials – to make the best decisions for their communities. This includes allowing employers to reopen if they adhere to Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Pennsylvania Department of Health safety requirements.”

“This legislation is not only the right approach, but is the best approach for the public health emergency with which we are dealing.”

U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, R-12th District, a former GOP House member who represents counties impacted by Wolf’s orders slammed the Democratic governor, accusing him of “denying Pennsylvanians their freedom, exacerbating the societal effects of this virus, and creating a situation where the cure is worse than the disease.”

“Trying to feed your family is not ‘cowardly.’ The vast majority of Pennsylvanians rely on their jobs to put food on the table and pay their bills,” Keller said. “Because of Gov. Wolf’s prolonged shutdown order, nearly 2 million Pennsylvanians, or 26 percent of our state’s workforce, are unemployed, and overdose and suicide deaths are rising. Pennsylvanians have shown they can safely shop and work in mega-retailers while the Governor unilaterally keeps small businesses closed and is now threatening them if they re-open. Despite what Gov. Wolf believes, Pennsylvania’s small business owners and workers are smart enough to operate safely and feed their families.”\

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press