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Wolf imposes new coronavirus restrictions, warns of surge

The Investigator

Your guide to the Capitol & stories holding the powerful to account

July 16, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

Almost exactly one month ago, Gov. Tom Wolf spiked the football and boasted that Pennsylvania was one of just three states that was not seeing coronavirus case increases after reopening. Well, what a difference a month can make.

Yesterday, Wolf imposed new restrictions on bars, restaurants, businesses, and gatherings — his first rollbacks since his statewide reopening. The governor declared the state was at a "tipping point" and, without immediate action, could see a worse spike in cases than we saw in the spring.

The governor appears to still have the trust of the public when it comes to the virus, with a new Monmouth University poll finding 67% of respondents said he had done a "very good" or "somewhat good" job of handling the crisis.

Republicans in the legislature disagree. Having lost every attempt turn so far to rein in the governor, they are now pursuing a constitutional amendment to permanently strip the governor's office of the power to issue and indefinitely extend emergency declarations. They say lawmakers should be involved.

The amendment could be before voters as soon as May 2021, and the approach has one big benefit for lawmakers — Wolf can't block it.

Finally, you might have seen claims recently by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) about a "less severe" coronavirus strain. We dug in and debunked that assertion, and yesterday, Health Secretary Rachel Levine backed up our report. Chalk up another win for accountability journalism.

If you value stories like that one, please consider making a gift to Spotlight PA. We rely on reader support — your support — to produce this reporting and share it at no cost with community partners across the state, all part of our effort to inform and empower as many Pennsylvanians as possible.

Have a great weekend.

Christopher Baxter


"How are we ever going to get out of this mess?"

— David Brown, a public health scientist, on the state's outright dismissal of the damning findings of a grand jury report on fracking and its impact on the public.
EYE ON THE LAGGARDS: New cases in Pennsylvania are ticking higher, and all eyes are on the lagging indicators — hospitalizations and deaths. Hospitalizations have started to show a very modest increase, and state officials are warning the situation could get much worse without action.

Follow all the trends statewide and in your county with our coronavirus tracker.

More from Spotlight PA

» Report on failure to protect residents from fracking unlikely to result in major reform
» Pa. Democratic state senator tests positive for the coronavirus
Pa. 101: How to amend the state constitution

So you want to change Pennsylvania’s Constitution?

First, you’ll need to find a lawmaker to sponsor the idea and introduce a resolution. That’s because, unlike in neighboring Ohio and a handful of other states, citizens can’t collect signatures and get their proposal on the ballot themselves.

Second, leadership in both the House and Senate have to agree to bring it up for a vote. 

Third, lawmakers in each chamber need to pass the resolution, then pass it again during a consecutive legislative session (each session lasts for two years).

If that happens, the resolution goes to voters statewide, who get the final say.

While lawmakers propose dozens of amendments every session, few make it to voters and even fewer are approved. Since 1968, when Pennsylvania adopted the latest version of its constitution, voters have backed 45.

In recent days, the GOP-controlled legislature has put two more on the fast track.

One would permanently weaken a governor’s emergency powers and hand some of it over to lawmakers, allowing the General Assembly to unilaterally end a disaster declaration. The other would create districts across the state to elect Supreme Court justices and other appellate judges, who are currently picked in statewide contests. 

The latter idea is supported by Republicans who want better rural representation on the bench, and opposed by Democrats who fear the legislature will draw the districts for partisan advantage. The resolution squeaked through the House and Senate by narrow margins. 

Proposed amendments are often driven by politics, not popular opinion.

One proposal to take away lawmakers’ power to gerrymander the state’s political boundaries, and instead hand the task over to an independent commission, was supported by 67% of voters in 2019. 

That popularity didn't translate into action, and time has now run out for the proposed amendment. The two resolutions favored by the GOP, however, are primed to reach voters as early as May next year.

— Sarah Anne Hughes

From across the state

» Most faculty at Pennsylvania’s state universities don’t feel safe enough to return to campus this fall, the Inquirer reports. The uncertainty comes as colleges and schools try to plot a path forward as the number of COVID-19 cases rises. According to the Capital-Star, fewer than 100 school districts and charter schools have submitted reopening plans to the state.

» With a July 24 deadline to test all residents and staff for COVID-19 fast approaching, just 50% of the state’s nursing homes have completed the task, according to TribLive. Among those that haven’t: Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center in Beaver County, where more than 70 residents have died. 

 » Long-awaited probation reform cleared the state Senate this week, PennLive reports, though groups including the ACLU are concerned the bill could actually make the situation worse. The legislation lacks a cap on probation terms and doesn't provide an easy mechanism for early termination. 

Best of the rest across Pa.

» INQUIRER: 190 years of police brutality against Black people in Philly

» LNP: Bill allowing robot deliveries is quietly going through Pa. legislature

» MORNING CALL: More than 200 demand change after officer kneels on man

» PENN RECORD: Major plaintiff firms receive government loans of at least $1 million

» PUBLIC SOURCE: Small-town residents join fight against racial inequality

» WESA: Mother of late Duquesne student on hunger strike for a private investigation

Yaasmeen Piper


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