PA POST – Legislation to reopen more Pennsylvania businesses amid the coronavirus outbreak cleared the legislature on Wednesday, but not by enough votes to override Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto.
The state Senate passed a bill to require the governor to follow federal guidelines to determine which businesses are essential.
Those guidelines from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, would allow more industries to open, such as home construction.
Just hours after the Senate voted, a Wolf spokesperson said the governor would veto the bill for “irresponsibly going against the direction of the Secretary of Health and reopening businesses too early will only extend the length of the economic hardships created by the pandemic.”
Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine have said repeatedly that mitigation efforts can’t be relaxed without raising the possibility that coronavirus infections would surge again.
GOP legislators say local officials and employers should be trusted to make those decisions.
“Every business is life sustaining,” state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) said during Wednesday’s debate.
She said the bill would create a more fair and transparent process for deciding which businesses can remain open.
The Senate’s final passage of the bill with a 29 to 21 vote came on the same day the Pennsylvania Department of Health reports that more than 26,000 Pennsylvanians have tested positive for the coronavirus with 647 related deaths.
Pennsylvania has also seen a surge in unemployment claims, with more than 1.1 million since mid-March.
State Sen. Scott Martin (R-Lancaster) said people want to be safe, but they also want to work.
“I have homes waiting to be finished for construction so families can move in,” Martin said.
But state Sen. Steven Santarsiero (D-Bucks) said that loosening restrictions would undo progress that the state has made to control the growth of coronavirus infections.
“Not only would that be a public health catastrophe, but economically it would set us back months,” Santarsiero said. “…Now is not the time to risk the lives of the people of Pennsylvania.”
The Wolf administration is opposed to loosening restrictions on businesses. When lawmakers proposed the measure last week, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said in a letter that encouraging increased social movement by “reopening a significant amount of businesses would be reckless and irresponsible.” She said the federal guidelines are too broad.
“In fact, there are very few industries out of retail (which would also see large exemptions) that wouldn’t be able to make an argument that they could open under this legislation,” Levine wrote.
Wolf’s March 19 shutdown order applied to more than 100 types of businesses, but his office created a waiver process for any affected employer.
As of the end of the day Sunday, the state had approved 7,648 waivers, denied 18,662, and determined 14,392 were submitted unnecessarily, according to the Department of Community and Economic Development.
Several Republicans lawmakers said the administration has not been consistent in how it approves waivers, and legislators and journalists alike have protested the Wolf administration’s refusal to release the full list of businesses that have had waiver applications approved and denied.
“The current process has created more confusion, and that confusion has begun to lead to chaos,” said Phillips-Hill.
State Sen. Katie Muth (D-Montgomery) echoed some of the criticism of the waiver process, but she said the proposal would create too much of a health risk.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) said the proposal represents a targeted approach.
“This is not a massive opening of the economy,” he said.
During a Wednesday afternoon news conference, Wolf defended the shutdowns he has ordered, and he declined to say whether he would veto legislation requiring the state to follow federal guidelines.
“The course we’re on now is the least bad choice we have to make” and is the “right course for Pennsylvania,” he said.
Before the bill heads to the governor, legislative leaders in both the Senate and House must sign it. The House is not in session today, but House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) told lawmakers to be prepared to return to session on 12-hour notice.
Lawmakers in the state Senate also debated a measure that would give county leaders the power to decide when businesses can re-open. That passed out of the Senate Wednesday, but it still needs approval from the House before it would reach the governor. Wolf said he doesn’t support it.
As lawmakers debated opening up more businesses, the Wolf administration took action on its own Wednesday to require additional health and safety practices at businesses that are already allowed to remain open.
Levine, the state’s health secretary, said businesses must require employees to wear masks while at work, with exceptions for using break time to eat or drink. Businesses must also supply masks to employees.
The new order takes effect immediately and will be enforced beginning 8 p.m. Sunday.
PA Post is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom that covers politics and policy in Pennsylvania. Read their reporting at PaPost.org.