Wolf outlines plan to reopen Pa., but doesn’t say when that will happen

Gov. Tom Wolf addresses Pennsylvanians in an online speech on Friday, 4/17/20 (screen capture)

(This story was updated at 4:40 pm with additional comment from Senate Republicans.)

Heavy on policy pitches but weak on timing, Gov. Tom Wolf has announced his plan to lift coronavirus-related social distancing orders. 

The plan calls for regional re-openings based on modeling and data, with no definite timeline in place. Wolf also did not clarify the metrics he would use.

Widespread access to personal protective equipment, such as face masks, plentiful testing, and “a monitoring and surveillance program” to contain new outbreaks were also conditions for returning to normalcy, Wolf said during a Friday afternoon address.

“There isn’t going to be one big day,” Wolf said. 

The administration also said it wanted “assured accountability” for employers, health care facilities and individuals that flout health standards as the state reopens. Large gatherings, he added, would remain off-limits until further notice.

More details in his plan will be announced next week, he added. The reopening conditions Wolf laid out mirrored those he mentioned in a speech on Monday.

The latest on COVID-19 in Pa.: 29,441 confirmed cases in 67 counties

As of midday Friday, the state had identified 29,441 cases of coronavirus in all 67 counties, while 756 Pennsylvanians have died.

According to projections by the University of Washington, Pennsylvania health care resource use peaked Thursday

The state has been under a stay at home order since April 1, while all non-“life-sustaining” businesses have been closed since March 23.

The shutdowns have led to 1.4 million Pennsylvanians to apply for unemployment benefits. 

From losing their livelihood to missing births, deaths and holidays, Wolf acknowledged the sacrifices Pennsylvanians have made while in quarantine.

And turning to the future, the governor, a Democrat, made a policy pitch in the speech. He called for a broad expansion of the state’s’ social safety net in response to holes laid bare by the “forced stop of our economy and our workforce.”

That includes higher wages — he did not specify a minimum wage increase — paid family and sick leave, student debt forgiveness for front line workers, and strengthening the state’s strained system for paying unemployed workers or those hurt on the job, among other proposals.

Citing their cooperation to delay Pennsylvania’s primary until June 2, and to create a $50 million state fund for health care equipment, Wolf asked for bipartisan cooperation on his agenda from the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

“Work with me to build on these successes, because right now I need your help,” Wolf said, adding that he does not “have a monopoly on good ideas.”

Republicans in both chambers signaled interest in tackling labor policies this week, but details on potential policy were scarce. 

Recently, the suggested policies have had little success. House Republicans scuttled a Senate deal to increase Pennsylvania’s minimum wage earlier this year. Paid family leave, meanwhile, has attracted bipartisan support, but no action.

In a statement, Mike Straub, spokesperson for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, did not address Wolf’s policy. 

Straub instead said that House Republicans would continue to be the voice” for health care workers, Pennsylvanians out of work, and for taxpayers “who worry that government will ask them to solve the revenue shortfall.”

In their own statement, Senate Republican leadership called Wolf’s address disappointing, and asked for him to “abandon his go-it-alone approach” and work with the legislature.

“We are tired of hearing his rhetoric that he wants to work with us, while at the same time making unilateral decisions,” the statement said.

The olive branch comes after Wolf has faced pushback for his executive actions to contain COVID-19.

As Republican lawmakers railed against Wolf as “arbitrary and capricious,” the General Assembly passed two bills this week that would, effectively, reopen some businesses shuttered by Wolf’s strict and opaque “life-sustaining” business order.

One is already on his desk. Wolf has pledged to veto both.

Wolf’s announcement comes a day after President Donald Trump revealed his own plan to reopen America. His plan gives wide discretion to individual states, a turn around from earlier this week.

On Monday, Trump said he had total authority to reopen states after two groups of states — in the northeast and west — announced they would coordinate restarting their regional economies.

Since, a midwestern coalition of governors, including neighboring Ohio GOP Gov. Mike DeWine, announced a similar plan.

Trump’s plan, however, does not address one key detail — the nationwide shortage of testing, which health experts and Wolf have acknowledged as key to reopening.