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

Governor Tom Wolf at a March 12 press conference announcing Pennsylvania's new COVID-19 response strategies. Source: Commonwealth Media Services.

(*This story was updated with additional information on the compact at 5:34 pm and additional comments from President Donald Trump at 6:56 pm.)

Speaking in unison with six other chief executives, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday that Pennsylvania and other northeastern states would create an interstate COVID-19 council, charged with coordinating business reopenings as the pandemic slows.

“We need to come up with a specific and a smart plan for this uncertain future,” Wolf said Monday in a press call. But the cooperation is also, to let “the citizens of our states know that we indeed do have a future,” he said.

There was still no timeline for re-openings, but Wolf and his fellow governors — all Democrats representing Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island — said they planned to share information, resources and expertise to allow for a smooth economic reset.

One state with a Republican governor, Massachusetts, announced it was joining the compact Monday evening after the announcement.

The coordination will come through a council, made up of each state’s top public health official, economic development chief, and each governor’s chief of staff.

With northeastern residents around New York City and Philadelphia often commuting and shopping across state lines, botching re-openings, the governors argued, could backfire with economic or public health consequences.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for example, pointed to interstate transit as an issue. If transit worker staffing levels aren’t increased early enough, then commuters on their way back to work might not even get to the office.

“This virus doesn’t care about state borders, and our response shouldn’t either,” Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo said.

The northeastern states weren’t alone in forging a state-based coronavirus response. California, Oregon and Washington — all governed by Democrats — announced a similar compact Monday afternoon.

The efforts of the states were noted by President Donald Trump in two tweets he sent Monday.  In the social media messages, Trump said that reopening individual states “is the decision of the President, and for many good reasons.”

He did not elaborate on the reasons in the Tweet or in a Monday White House press briefing. 

Trump said that he’d “like to see that person run for election” of officials who keep businesses closed even if he orders re-openings. Local shutdowns, Trump said, were only allowed because “I let that happen.”

“When somebody is the president of the United States, their authority is total,” Trump said. “The governor’s know that.”

Wolf and his fellow governors however, held that until they saw Trump take charge, they would continue making state-level decisions.

“Considering we had the responsibility for closing the state down,” Wolf said, “I figure we have the primary responsibility for opening it back up.”

In announcing the council, Wolf gave some hope after weeks of warning citizens to expect the worst. 

Over the weekend, his health secretary Dr. Rachel Levine laid out the conditions for reopening the state, mostly based on a downward trend in cases, but said the state was “not there yet.”

Levine added at a Monday press conference that Pennsylvania’s increase in cases and deaths is slower than rates seen in other states. This is proof, she argued, that the states’ social distancing policies — such as school and business closings and stay at home orders — are working.

 

However, Levine did not argue for removing any public health measures yet. In fact, she said that she had argued for Wolf to adopt stricter social distancing measures.

But even if Monday’s announcement was meant to signal hope, it was greeted with sour irony by others.

In particular, the council rang hollow for Republicans, who have pushed for the Republican-controlled General Assembly to gain a voice in the coronavirus response. Just last week, the House voted to create a task force on the pandemic recovery last week, over cries of partisanship from Democrats.

Republicans and business leaders have also increased their critiques of Wolf’s business shutdown order of late, which they say lacks transparency and consistency. 

The House is expected to vote this week to match the state’s business opening standards to federal standards. Those have been used as a guide for some neighboring states, such as New York.

As of Monday, the Pennsylvania Department of Health raised the state’s coronavirus case count to 24,199. Of them, 524 people have died.