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HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf issued a stern rebuke against Pennsylvania counties and businesses that plan to reopen without state approval, calling it a “cowardly act” that could cost those areas not only lives but federal stimulus money, too.
Over the past week, a host of lawmakers, district attorneys, and law enforcement agencies in counties still under strict coronavirus closure orders said they planned to defy Wolf and unilaterally move themselves to the next phase of the governor’s reopening plan. State officials have given 37 counties the go-ahead to ease restrictions, lifting the stay-at-home order and allowing some businesses to reopen if they follow certain safety precautions.
“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 at a news conference Monday. “They need to understand the consequences of their cowardly act.”
Wolf said counties that reopen without state approval could be denied their share of discretionary funding from the federal stimulus. Businesses in these areas that resume operations risk losing state certifications required to operate.
“The funding we have put aside to help with fighting this crisis will go to the folks who are doing their part,” Wolf said. “To the politicians urging businesses to risk their lives, and to risk the lives of their customers or employees by opening prematurely, you need to understand that they are engaging in behavior that is both selfish and unsafe.”
Officials from several counties that are still in the “red” phase of Wolf’s reopening plan — including Beaver, Dauphin, Lancaster, and Lebanon — said they will not penalize businesses that reopen without state approval.
They argued their counties have met state benchmarks for reopening and said their case counts have been inflated by infections inside nursing homes, though experts have cautioned against excluding those cases. They also pointed to the ongoing economic damage caused by the coronavirus, with 1.8 million Pennsylvanians filing for unemployment since March.
“I have great sympathy for those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. I also have great concern for the families that now have to struggle with financial concerns, mental health stress, addiction, and more because of the shutdown,” Dauphin County Board Chairman Jeff Haste wrote Friday. “Again, our governor has pitted groups of Pennsylvanians against one another.”
Wolf said workers whose bosses choose to reopen without state approval can stay home and continue collecting unemployment benefits.
“Let me be clear: employees that fear for their safety because a business has opened illegally, they don’t have to go to work,” Wolf said Monday.
Under the stay-at-home and business closure orders, the State Police can issue warnings and citations that come with a maximum $300 fine, although they’ve issued just one citation, to a roofing business in Lebanon County. Wolf said state troopers will continue with this enforcement.
Pennsylvania’s insurance commissioner on Monday warned businesses that insurance policies may void coverage for companies that are “engaging in illegal acts or conducts,” like reopening without the state’s permission.
“It is the duty of every business and resident in Pennsylvania to ensure that they and the public at large are provided with the maximum level of protection afforded by insurance,” Insurance Commissioner Jessica Altman said in a statement. “Any actions that could potentially create coverage gaps are the antithesis of the civil duty required of all residents during these times of emergency.”
The split between Wolf and local officials, most of whom are Republicans, caught the notice of President Donald Trump, who tweeted Monday, “The great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now, and they are fully aware of what that entails.”
“The Democrats are moving slowly, all over the USA, for political purposes,” the president said on Twitter. “They would wait until November 3rd if it were up to them. Don’t play politics. Be safe, move quickly!”
Wolf has repeatedly said the virus is the enemy, not people. While he said Monday there are enforcement mechanisms the state can deploy against counties that defy his orders, he once again emphasized the need for collective cooperation.
“We’re all in this together,” Wolf said. “And if one of us deserts the cause we’re not only hurting ourselves, we’re hurting everybody else in Pennsylvania. We have an imperative to stay in this fight and stay the course.”
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