Op-ed: Protect lives by preserving livelihoods

Originally published in LancasterOnline.

By most indications, Pennsylvania has headed off the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic by protecting doctors and medical staff, supporting first responders, and relying on the vital workers who provide us with life’s necessities. The curve seems to have flattened, and data suggest we’ve passed the peak of hospital usage—with ample capacity to spare.

But another catastrophe waits in the wings and will only be averted if we safely and responsibly get people back to work.

Last week, Gov. Wolf started down this road by taking executive action to allow for online car sales and reopening housing and building construction, with certain parameters, on May 1. This was long overdue and speaks to the urgent housing and transportation needs facing many Pennsylvania families.

Unfortunately, Wolf also vetoed legislation that would have reopened those same industries while providing for a more transparent and fair way to define safe and essential work. Could it be because it wasn’t his idea?

The Legislature has debated and passed plenty of impactful bills since Wolf shut down “non-life-sustaining” businesses on March 19 with just three hours’ notice. That extreme and poorly planned order hurt his credibility when he needed it most.

It’s become clear that arbitrarily closing certain industries has caused chaos and represents its own health risk. Wolf’s closure of housing construction and realty has made families effectively homeless, including vulnerable older adults and front line nurses. And the ever-changing definition of “life-sustaining,” altered four times since its original posting, has sewn uncertainty while select businesses receiving waivers to reopen has sparked suspicion.

The outcome should surprise no one. In just a few weeks, more than 1.7 million workers have lost their jobs—approximately 27 percent of Pennsylvania’s workforce—a disaster dwarfing the “great recession” of 2008-09. Many of these applicants are still waiting for their claims to be processed, and more still for payments to arrive.

Mass layoffs have created a second crisis that needs to be addressed now.

Unemployment and social isolation have direct health consequences. The New York Times has reported a rise in domestic violence as a result of the coronavirus shutdown, and child abuse has tragically risen as well. Opioid abuse is on the rise, and in many parts of the state, overdose deaths far exceed those from COVID-19. 

Numerous studies link recessions to reduced life expectancy. Both economic hardship and social isolation are also linked to higher suicide rates—and these have already been rising for decades.

Even the health care industry isn’t immune to this manmade economic crisis. Hospitals are losing money and laying off employees in Pennsylvania because of government orders to cancel all elective procedures. Wolf just announced $450 million in loans to bail these hospitals out—but will it be enough? The health ripple effect of a hospital closing is proof that economic disaster is itself a health crisis. It’s time for lawmakers to consider the loss of life and health caused by our reaction to COVID-19.

The truth is, we can get people back to work while protecting public health.

Lawmakers continue to push for a smart reopening, advancing bills—with bipartisan support—to restart construction, open car dealers, resume realty, and allow small retailers to offer curbside service and one-person-at-a-time shopping. UPMC—the largest hospital system in Pennsylvania, announced they would resume “elective,” but life-saving, surgeries with or without Wolf’s permission.

All businesses reopening can and must comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health and safety guidelines.

While Wolf is reacting to lawmakers’ push to responsibly reopen certain business categories, he seems determined to reject solutions that don’t originate from his branch of government. That’s a mistake, and it’s costing precious time.

To stave off the harms that will come from the economic catastrophe, we need to act now.

Gov. Wolf should take state lawmakers’ advice and bring transparency and fairness to Pennsylvania’s reopening—along with a sense of urgency. In doing so, he can continue flattening the curve and protect Pennsylvanians’ lives by preserving their livelihoods.

Nathan Benefield is vice president and COO of the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.