Setting up clash with Wolf, Pa. House moves to loosen business shutdowns

House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler speaks at a 2019 press conference surrounded by the House Republican caucus. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

In a critique of Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 response, the Pennsylvania House Tuesday, in a near-party line vote, approved changes to which businesses can and cannot stay open during the pandemic.

The proposal tweaks Wolf’s nearly month-long order to close all non-“life-sustaining” businesses, by replacing his strict but opaque standards with a looser definition of essential establishments.

The measure now heads to the state Senate, but will require Wolf’s signature to become law. He has yet to offer a position, but expressed skepticism of slackening social distancing Tuesday.

The bill, if passed, would align business openings with federal guidelines issued in late March. A number of states are utilizing parts of the guidance, including Pennsylvania neighbors New York, Ohio and Maryland.

Facing 1.3 million jobless claims and business complaints, the Republicans who control the General Assembly have pushed to amend Wolf’s shutdown order and get people back to work, all while criticizing Wolf’s order for lacking transparency and consistency.

 

“We as a society accept risk as a portion of what we do all the time,” House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said on the House floor.

With the potential for future coronavirus outbreaks, the list of businesses that can remain open “must have the structure and consideration it deserves,” Cutler added.

 

The bill passed 107-95. Every Republican voted in favor of the measure, except two representing the Philadelphia suburbs, which is dealing with thousands of COVID-19 cases and has suffered hundreds of deaths.

Democrats, meanwhile, voted unanimously against it. The bill must still pass the Senate before it would land on Wolf’s desk.

State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine estimated that the change could potentially allow a significant number of businesses to reopen in a letter she sent to the General Assembly last week. Levine opposed the bill.

The administration was backed up by its House Democratic allies, who questioned why Republicans would undo public health measures and send thousands back to work amid the coronavirus crisis.

 

Rep. Matt Bradford, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee from hard hit Montgomery County, acknowledged to the Capital-Star that Wolf’s temporary program to certify, on a case-by-case, business openings was “chaotic.” 

But it was still an earnest effort to give business latitude, Bradford added. He also pointed out that Republican-preferred federal guidance calls for local officials to “use their own judgment” on closing and openings.

“We need confidence in our institutions,” Bradford said on the House floor. “We need bipartisan leadership. We need to recognize that [Wolf is] not your governor or my governor, he’s our governor — and he has an impossible job.”

Business groups and Republican lawmakers meanwhile have criticized Wolf for shutting down liquor stores, car dealerships, real estate agencies, some manufacturing and non-emergency construction during the pandemic, among other things. 

The federal guidelines for “critical infrastructure” Republicans seek to match would likely allow some, but not all, of these industries to resume operations.

Such businesses could only open if they follow federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing standards.

Republican leaders in the Senate have signaled they are in favor of the measure, and will return Wednesday to try to pass it. The GOP has a 29-21 majority in the 50-member chamber.

But the changes would still need the approval of Wolf, who did not take a hard stance on any pending legislation in a Tuesday conference call with reporters.

Instead, the Democratic governor reiterated a message that he delivered in a public address the previous night: that efforts to reopen the economy would require a much broader testing infrastructure than the one Pennsylvania has right now.

Wolf said lawmakers could not expect economic rebound until its residents feel safe in businesses and public spaces. The only way to restore that confidence, he said, is with “broad, ubiquitous” testing that detects infection and immunity in real time.

Widespread testing has remained elusive across the United States thanks to a nationwide shortage of medical supplies and testing gear. But epidemiologists have confirmed that broader testing availability, including for asymptomatic patients, ought to be a prerequisite as states start to relax social distancing orders. 

Pennsylvania has so far only collected diagnostic testing data for just over one percent of its population, and Levine said Tuesday that shortages of chemical testing materials are making it difficult to expand test access further. 

Levine said she hopes to see testing capacity expand through the summer, including testing for immunity picking up later in the season.

Reopening the economy before this testing infrastructure is in place could be bad for business, Wolf argued.

“If we don’t do this right, the economy is going to be in even worse shape than it is right now,” Wolf said Tuesday. “We can open businesses, but if employees don’t feel safe going to work, they’re not going to come. If customers don’t feel safe coming to buy something, they won’t buy anything.”

Wolf offers hope as Northeastern guvs announce council to coordinate post-pandemic reopenings