Op-ed: Pennsylvania construction shutdown puts the elderly at risk

Originally published in The Washington Examiner.

Pennsylvania senior citizens are being put at greater risk for contracting the coronavirus because of the restrictions Gov. Tom Wolf has imposed on residential housing projects, according to construction industry officials and their clients.

Wolf, a Democrat who was reelected in 2018, joined neighboring governors in putting statewide COVID-19 mitigation efforts into effect beginning in mid-March. Since then, Wolf has ordered the closure of nonessential businesses and all schools. He has also issued a stay-at-home order on all of the state’s 67 counties that was initially set to last through April 30, but the order was recently extended to last through May 8.

Earlier this week, Wolf vetoed Senate Bill 613, which would have required Pennsylvania to come into compliance with federal guidelines that have a broader definition of what qualifies as an essential business. If SB 613 became law, it would have freed up the construction industry, among others. In his veto message, Wolf expressed concern that if he permitted businesses to reopen “too early” it would increase the spread of COVID-19. 

Industry leaders who are directly affected by the governor’s orders do not dispute that Wolf has authority to take action aimed at halting the spread of COVID-19. But it’s that part about distinguishing between essential and nonessential services that has become a source of consternation not just for business owners, but senior citizens most at risk for contracting the disease.

Tom Slattery and his wife are among those residents. They live in Monroe Township in Cumberland County, which is only a mile or so away from where they plan to move into a new home at Silver Spring, a community for residents who are 55-years and older. Traditions of America, based in Berwyn, is the construction company responsible for Silver Spring that has had its operations frozen in place as a result of the governor’s order.

“My wife is currently getting chemotherapy for cancer,” Slattery said in an interview. “Her immune system is compromised, and she’s exactly the kind of person you want to take extra care to protect from contracting the virus.”

The Slatterys have already sold their home and were planning to move in June. But with construction now halted, that looks unlikely.

“If you want to protect older people from the coronavirus, having them move into a new home makes sense,” Slattery said. “This uncertainty now facing us and others like us, is not a good place for older residents with underlying health conditions to be in while the virus is spreading.”

Charles Mitchell, the president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is encouraging the governor to reconsider his position. 

“It is beyond disappointing that the governor summarily dismissed a reasonable plan to start allowing workers to return to their jobs safely in SB 613,” he said. “We can, and must, protect Pennsylvanians’ lives while preserving their livelihoods. I urge the governor to work with the legislature to quickly outline a plan of action that both saves lives and restores our state’s hope for the future.”

There are signs Wolf is beginning to relent. 

During a press conference on Monday, Wolf said his administration would allow residential and nonresidential construction to resume in early May so long as social distancing guidelines are observed. 

For David Biddison, a partner with Traditions of America, a change in policy could not come too soon for customers who are counting on secure, safe living arrangements. “The health and safety of our customers, our employees, and our vendors is our top priority,” he said in an interview. “We are prepared to implement stricter health standards than required by the CDC and the state. The governor’s executive order, that shelter for the elderly is not life-sustaining, is inconsistent with the position of the federal government and 46 states.”

In a major win for the National Association of Home Builders this past March, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security declared that the construction of single-family and multi-family housing is an essential business. This should give further impetus to legislation providing Pennsylvania’s construction industry with a broad exemption from the governor’s order.

“Traditions of America is a leading provider of senior housing in Pennsylvania,” Timothy McCarthy, managing partner and CEO of Traditions of America, said. “Our senior citizen customers, by definition, are high-risk. They’ve counted on us to deliver these homes.”

Traditions of America focuses exclusively on what McCarthy describes as “age qualified housing.” This industry was made possible through the Housing for Older Persons Act of 1995, which amended the Fair Housing Act. 

“Today, the most significant driver of healthcare costs in America, year after year is not the flu, heart disease, or cancer,” McCarthy said. “It is older people falling in their homes.”

He estimates based on recent government figures there are about 50 million households across the country that comprise the age group for which Traditions of America provides vital housing. More than 800,000 people a year are hospitalized because of falls that often lead to a head injury or hip fracture, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Medical costs were in excess of $50 billion in 2015, the CDC reports.

“Companies like Traditions that serve households with older people are indispensable to stopping this crisis,” McCarthy said. “The Pennsylvania government seems unaware of this problem. While residential housing is vital, our role is exponentially more important.”