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From the archives 2020

Pa. counties abandon plans to buck Wolf, as GOP lawmakers continue pushing doomed reopening bills

by Cynthia Fernandez of Spotlight PA |

KENT M. WILHELM / For Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — As Republicans in the legislature continue to pass reopening bills doomed to be vetoed, some Pennsylvania counties are abandoning plans to restart their local economies without Gov. Tom Wolf’s blessing.

Over the past week, a growing number of counties that are still in the “red” phase of Wolf’s three-tiered reopening plan vowed to buck the state and unilaterally ease coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses and residents.

The GOP-controlled state Senate approved a bill Wednesday that would give counties the power to do so, by opting out of Wolf’s business closure and stay-at-home orders.

“This allows counties to decide on their own what they want to do and what they don’t want to do,” Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) said. “This allows counties to decide what businesses can open and what ones do not open.”

“Brookville isn’t Manhattan, Coudersport isn’t Philadelphia,” he continued, juxtaposing rural areas of the state with few COVID-19 cases to urban epicenters. “These are very different places and very different circumstances.”

The vote was preceded by a joint committee hearing with commissioners from Beaver and Dauphin Counties, which have both threatened to reopen without Wolf’s approval, as well as with representatives from counties that are already open, and one that’s far from that goal: Delaware County, in the hard-hit southeast.

Jeff Haste, chair of the Dauphin County Board of Commissioners and a Republican, told lawmakers he’s been “frustrated at the lack of clear communication from the administration, but we want to work with everybody to try to move this forward.”

While the county’s commissioners previously said they would move the area to the “yellow” phase without Wolf’s approval, allowing many businesses to resume in-person operations, they dropped that plan Wednesday.

During a board meeting, Haste said there are still no plans to prosecute businesses that reopen, PennLive reported.

That promise will only apply to local enforcement. Earlier this week, Wolf warned that companies that reopen with state approval risk losing required certifications and that the State Police will continue to issue warnings and fines.

But according to Lt. Col. Scott Price, deputy commissioner for operations, troopers will continue to use citations as a “last resort.”

The agency will also defer to municipal departments, which may choose to take the same restrained enforcement approach, Price told reporters Wednesday.

“In those areas that we have primary jurisdiction, our emphasis will continue … to be encouragement, education, and work to build the public trust, and try to explain why it’s important to follow these orders,” Price said.

In total, troopers have issued 329 warnings and one citation to businesses that have violated Wolf’s business closure order. They’ve issued 34 warnings and seven citations to people over stay-at-home order enforcement.

So far, Wolf’s administration has given 37 of the state’s 67 counties the go-ahead to ease coronavirus restrictions, with more expected to be announced Friday. While that includes much of western and north-central Pennsylvania, not all counties in those areas were allowed to advance. That includes Beaver County, which has seen a serious outbreak in one nursing home.

Daniel Camp, a Republican county commissioner, told the Senate committees he was disappointed at how long it took the Department of Health to implement universal testing at long-term care facilities and send in the National Guard to Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center, where 71 people have died.

Beaver County, as well as Lancaster and Lebanon, are moving forward with plans to reopen without state approval, while other counties including Dauphin and Schuylkill have backed away from the threat.

“Come this Friday, we plan on opening because we’re getting hundreds of emails, text messages, phone calls of these business owners that are on the brink of closing down,” Camp told Senate lawmakers. “We do believe that this one nursing home is holding us back.”

For his part, Wolf is not veering from his strategy to reopen the state’s economy gradually, and in waves, even as Republicans in the General Assembly openly and unapologetically savage his decision-making.

On Monday, the normally soft-spoken governor talked about the revolt in terms normally reserved for combat.

“These folks are choosing to desert in the face of the enemy in the middle of a war that we Pennsylvanians are winning — and that we must win,” Wolf said, as he threatened to withhold some federal stimulus dollars from rogue counties.

In addition to the bill that would give counties reopening powers, the Senate on Wednesday passed legislation that would allow garden shops, barber shops, and realtor offices statewide to resume in-person operations. They have been shuttered since March under Wolf’s order closing all businesses that aren’t “life-sustaining.”

The state House, also controlled by Republicans, is scheduled to vote on the measures Thursday. If they pass in that chamber, they’ll head to Wolf, who has vetoed similar bills in the recent past.

While some lawmakers have ramped up their rhetoric against Wolf’s orders, the public is still largely with him. A Washington Post poll released earlier this week showed 72% of adults in the state approve of his handling of the pandemic.

Brian Zidek, chair of the Delaware County Council and a Democrat, told lawmakers Wednesday the issue of reopening counties has become too political.

“We all want the same thing,” he said. “I’d ask everyone to stop politicizing this. … It’s not all Trump’s fault, it’s not all Wolf’s fault.”

Angela Couloumbis and Matt McKinney of Spotlight PA contributed to this article.

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