In Pennsylvania, where more than 30 percent of the workforce is now jobless, a battle has erupted over the economic costs of the state’s coronavirus shutdown. The protests, which began outside the Harrisburg state capitol building in late April, intensified last weekend, when commissioners in six counties announced their intention to reopen ahead of Governor Tom Wolf’s mandated schedule. The shutdown, officials in these counties said, had flattened the curve and kept hospitals running—but financially ruined their constituents. “Enough is enough,” wrote Jeff Haste, Dauphin County board chairman, in a letter addressed to “the People of Pennsylvania.” “It is time to reopen . . . and return our state to the people (as prescribed by our Constitution) and not run it as a dictatorship.”
In response, Wolf suggested on Monday that any county unilaterally moving to reopen would face severe consequences, from loss of discretionary funding to revocation of licenses and insurance for operating businesses. Wolf, a Democrat, called the actions of local elected officials—working in Republican-majority courthouses—“cowardly,” adding that they’re “choosing to desert in the face of the enemy.” Several county officials—considering the risks—have since reevaluated or shelved their reopening plans.
Counties, no doubt, are limited in state jurisdictional matters. And Wolf, though hardly nonideological, wants to limit the severity of Pennsylvania’s Covid-19 crisis. But the counties’ rebellion raises important questions about the consistency, transparency, and costs of Wolf’s aggressive measures. In recent weeks, moreover, bipartisan concerns about his decision-making have intensified—especially as the economic carnage increases and hospitals stay empty. “The very high surge we prepared for simply hasn’t happened,” said Donald Yealy, chair of emergency medicine at UPMC—the state’s largest health system—in an April news conference.
Wolf’s reopening plan involves a three-step, region-based, color-coded process. Last Friday, 24 counties in northwestern Pennsylvania and the state’s northern tier entered the “yellow” phase, which applies to areas with fewer than 50 new Covid-19 cases per 100,000 residents over two weeks. This phase lifts stay-at-home orders, permits limited business operations, and allows restricted social gatherings. Restaurants, however, remain takeout only, and gyms and theaters remain closed.
The counties that Wolf threatened are eager to enter this still-restrictive phase. After all, later this week, an additional 13 southwestern counties—including Pittsburgh and its suburbs—will join the “yellow” club. The administration’s decision has raised suspicion among several rural central counties, which meet the benchmark but are still in the stay-at-home “red” phase (in place through June 4). No county has yet entered the “green” phase, a full reopening.
Elected officials, the press, and the public increasingly question the administration’s decision-making and judgment—and not always for being overly restrictive. Critics wonder, for example, why the administration wants to reopen Pittsburgh, a major city, while keeping Perry County, population 46,000, closed. And communities that were overwhelmed by Covid-19 resent what they view as Wolf’s inattention to their plight. Luzerne County’s Hazleton, for example, became a national hotspot, featured in a New York Times front-page story and a 60 Minutes profile. Local elected officials in both parties criticized Wolf’s inaction, especially as New York-metro passenger vans transported relatives and friends to a city where social-distancing rules weren’t initially followed—leading to a crisis for the area’s large elderly population.
Wolf’s disjointed, opaque policies also affected employers. In March, Wolf ordered all “non-life-sustaining” businesses to close, which inevitably led to massive layoffs. Following his administration’s definition, this meant that Pennsylvania, for weeks, was the only state to close all construction sites. Even today, Pennsylvania remains the only state that has outlawed most in-person real-estate activities.
Questions have since emerged over the administration’s process for granting waivers to thousands of businesses—including, at one point, the cabinet-supply company once owned by the governor’s family. Republican legislators, who hold majorities in the state’s General Assembly, subpoenaed the records concerning this controversial process. Wolf has refused to provide documents, which led Senate Republicans to file a lawsuit; the governor released the list of approved businesses last Friday. On the night before the publication of the list, however, state officials revoked exemptions for previously approved businesses, without any explanation. The state’s largest newspapers have criticized the administration’s lack of transparency. “Rather than a commitment to openness,” noted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial board, “the administration . . . has opted for a shutdown of access to public records and created a state government that can largely operate in secret for an undetermined period.”
The pandemic has been tragic for Pennsylvania’s nursing-home residents, who, last week, accounted for 80 percent of the state’s new deaths. The scope of this crisis was preventable. As Spotlight PA recently reported, “emergency response officials,” in mid-March, made aggressive plans to protect nursing homes, but they were never fully activated. It remains unclear why the plans, circulated in the state’s health department, weren’t implemented. But the pandemic has continued to devastate nursing homes statewide, which, in turn, affects the color-coded status of some counties. Beaver County, for example, is the only county in Western Pennsylvania that remains in the red category, though the vast majority of its 479 Covid-19 cases are confined to one nursing home. Diane Menio, executive director of the Center for Advocacy for the Rights & Interests of the Elderly, told Spotlight PA that state officials should have visited facilities early in the crisis. “Not just looking at data, but going in and making sure there were people there and that they had a plan . . . But that wasn’t happening.” For weeks, the Wolf administration suggested that only people with symptoms should be tested—but in a reversal yesterday, the state’s health officials advised that nursing homes with positive cases should test all residents and staff.
As the pandemic spreads in nursing homes, Wolf has proposed a New Deal-inspired Commonwealth Civilian Coronavirus Corps to help reduce unemployment by training workers to conduct Covid-19 tests and contact tracing. Wolf hopes that “special funding from the federal government” would finance the vague plan. House Republicans, noting the millions of unemployed Pennsylvanians who would like to return to their regular jobs, said that the civilian corps was “perhaps [Wolf’s] most misguided idea.”
And so, millions of Pennsylvanians—emotionally battered and confronting financial catastrophe—navigate conflicting lockdown orders and interpret perplexing directives from the Wolf administration. They fear for their economic survival in communities that had struggled long before the crisis. In Hazleton, for example, nearly 70 percent of small-business owners fear that they will never reopen. Unemployment numbers continue to rise, while bankruptcies proliferate in regions locked in red. The coronavirus is mysterious and frightening enough. Pennsylvanians need more competent, consistent leadership from their governor to help them through this crisis.