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From the archives 2020

Gov. Tom Wolf claims expansive powers as coronavirus crisis deepens

by Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA and Laura McCrystal and Claudia Vargas of the Philadelphia Inquirer |

“We are in new territory,” Wolf said on Saturday, as the number of COVID-19 cases grew.
Commonwealth Media Services

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HARRISBURG — In the space of a week, Gov. Tom Wolf has shut down schools statewide, put four counties in lockdown, and ordered restaurants in some areas to close dine-in facilities.

And if coronavirus cases continue to multiply, the Democratic governor could also limit travel, order evacuations, and even commandeer private property to cope with the public health crisis.

Such are the powers that Pennsylvania’s governors have after declaring a disaster emergency, which Wolf did on March 6 as he and his administration scrambled to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Though he and his predecessors have declared emergencies before — often after natural disasters — the governor and his administration are now in uncharted waters, simply because of the sheer scope and unpredictability of trying to manage the march of a contagious disease.

“We are in new territory,” Wolf said on Saturday, as he and members of his administration gathered at the state’s emergency management center outside Harrisburg for their daily briefing.

When Wolf declared the disaster emergency, he triggered a part of the state’s emergency management law that vastly expands a governor’s powers. They include everything from ordering mass evacuations to limiting or outright halting liquor and firearm sales.

Also among the new powers: controlling “ingress and egress to and from a disaster area, the movement of persons within the area, and the occupancy of premises therein.”

That is the section — coupled with other powers given to his administration from the the state’s Disease Prevention and Control Law — that Wolf’s advisers say gives the governor the authority to shut down schools and even order businesses to close.

Late Sunday, the governor ordered restaurants in Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties to close their dine-in facilities for 14 days, while allowing carry-out and delivery to continue. Wolf had previously stopped short of mandating that nonessential businesses stop operations, even in the counties surrounding Philadelphia under a shutdown order.

“This is self-enforcement," Wolf said last week when asked about the shutdown order in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties. “I am not sending the State Police or the National Guard out to do this.”

But, legal experts say, if he changes his mind, he could make the closures mandatory. He could also use any “private, public, or quasi-public property if necessary,” order evacuations, and designate routes for the exodus, according to state law.

Wolf has implemented no-visitor policies at correctional facilities and nursing homes statewide. The governor’s office also has closed state government offices in the four counties under the shutdown order, and this weekend, ordered that the state-run liquor stores in those areas shut down operations by Tuesday.

People can travel freely, but Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine are urging residents to refrain from nonessential travel and any large gatherings. Essential medical services and mass transit remain open, as do supermarkets, pharmacies, and gas stations.

Philadelphia, unlike its surrounding counties, is not included on Wolf’s shutdown list. And Mayor Jim Kenney has thus far taken a different approach to the crisis.

Philadelphia law gives the mayor broad powers, allowing the city to “forbid congregation of persons” when facing an epidemic, and ordering isolation or quarantine of people who are infected or exposed to the virus. Kenney used that power Thursday when the city announced a ban on all events with 1,000 or more people.

And if Kenney determined that the city is in imminent danger of civil disturbance, disorder, or “other occurrence which will seriously and substantially endanger the health, safety, and property of citizens,” he could declare a state of emergency, per the city code. That would give him tremendous power to cut off activity within the city limits, including shutting down traffic in and out of the city and establishing a curfew.

But Kenney administration officials have bristled at some of Wolf’s decisions in the wake of the virus’ spread. On Friday, they vowed to keep schools open, then changed course an hour later, expressing frustration and anger with Wolf for forcing their hand. And on Saturday, Kenney said Philadelphians should “go out and have dinner and tip your waitstaff.” He later walked back that statement in a tweet, suggesting takeout instead.

“We have to figure out a way that we can continue moving forward without panicking to the point where everything shuts down,” Kenney told reporters Saturday afternoon. “We may be healthier, but the economy would be in a tank and we can’t have that.”

Asked about the tension, Wolf on Saturday said “there will be disagreements.”

“In the case of Philadelphia, I will continue to … talk with the mayor and his administration to make sure that we are on the same page when it comes to addressing the needs of this crisis," the governor said.

Left unsaid: that Wolf’s disaster declaration could, effectively, trump Philadelphia’s rules.

Still, there are limits on the governor’s powers, even in an emergency. There could be lawsuits. And the state legislature could at any time rescind the disaster declaration, which is in effect for 90 days — although longtime political observers could not recall a time that has happened.

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