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Governor Issues Forceful Response To Counties Who May Break From Reopening Plan

Governor Tom Wolf speaking to reporters on March 16. Credit: PA Internet News Service

Speaking from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency in Susquehanna Township, Gov. Tom Wolf made clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has not ended.

Wolf’s late morning press conference was directed at counties that have frayed from the state’s reopening plan in moving from the “red” phase to “yellow,” which would allow for lessening of coronavirus mitigation restrictions.

Bucks County officials told the governor’s office over the weekend that they want a date when the area would move from red to yellow by Wednesday.

Based on Wolf’s statements, county officials likely won’t get their answer by Wednesday, with the governor stating he has “no plans for an arbitrary date.” He said the state has set guidelines and is constantly reviewing the data.

The Bucks County Commissioners – two Democrats and a Republican – have not stated they plan on reopening without state support, but asked the governor for a reopening date so businesses can prepare. They also said reopening before the primary election on Tuesday, June 2 would instill confidence.

In Central Pennsylvania, Dauphin, Lebanon and Lancaster counties have declared they will be the ones to decide their reopening date and not the governor. A fourth county, Cumberland County is reported to be considering their reopening.

The governor started his remarks by comparing the fight against COVID-19 to war.

“Some have elected to surrender to this enemy … These folks are choosing to desert in the face of the enemy, in the middle of a war Pennsylvanians are winning,” said Wolf, a Democrat in his second and final term as governor.

“They are engaging in behavior that is both selfish and unsafe,” he added.

The governor called the counties decision to reopen without the support of the state a “cowardly act.”

Wolf stated he has the authority to prevent reopening before the state approves. He also stated he does not plan to have the state sue local governments that approve reopening of businesses outside of the state’s plan.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office will not be asked at this time to help enforce the governor’s orders if local district attorney’s decline to prosecute, Wolf said. 

“I cannot allow residents in a red county to get sick because their local officials can’t see the invisible risk of the virus in their community,” Wolf said. “So, I must, and I will impose consequences if a county locally lifts restrictions when it has not yet been given the go-ahead by the state.”

The governor said counties who break from his administration’s plan would not be eligible for federal stimulus discretionary funds the state receives and plans to release to counties. He also stated businesses who reopen outside of the state plan could lose eligibility for liability insurance and the protections it provides and eateries with liquor licenses could risk their ability to operate.

Businesses that do follow the whims of local politicians and ignore the law and the welfare of their customers who probably find themselves uninsured,” Wolf stated.

The governor said employees could continue receiving unemployment compensation if their employer reopened outside of the state plan and they choose not to return to work out of concern for personal safety and safety of co-workers.

Wolf said the state is looking to reopen in a safe way and not in a “willy-nilly manner” that goes under the assumption the virus has disappeared. He called his administration’s approach “balanced” and “reasoned.”

At many points, Wolf directed the media to Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine’s afternoon press conference for clarifications.

“This is not a time to give up,” Wolf said. “This is a time to rededicate ourselves to the task of beating this virus. I intend to keep fighting, and I believe that the overwhelming majority of my fellow Pennsylvanians intend to keep fighting it too. With that unity, I know we can win.”

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