Op-ed: Lawmakers Right to End Wolf’s Extended Disaster Declaration

Originally published in PennLive.com & TribLive.

Barber shops and hair salons across Pennsylvania have sparked controversy during the prolonged business shutdown. Many have risked crushing fines and license suspensions to defy forced-closure orders and serve their customers. Cindy Schindler, owner of Papillon Salon and Skin Care Center in Lemoyne, says salons could have been operating all along. “When we go to school, we spend many hours just learning about bacteria, illness, diseases,” she said. “We were highly trained in sanitization.”

But Schindler can no longer serve her community no matter what safety measures she puts in place. She was forced to permanently close as Gov. Tom Wolf’s business shutdown, initially an understandable attempt to preserve public health in the face of uncertainty, has become mired in arbitrary rules and murky data.

The impending loss of local small businesses, 60% of which are at risk of closurewithin months, sparked the movement to responsibly reopen our economy. The pushback on Wolf’s unilateral shutdown policies isn’t just about getting a haircut. It’s about protecting the lifeblood of our neighborhoods and hometowns and the livelihoods of our friends and neighbors.

The lives lost due to covid-19 are a tragedy that can never be forgotten and must never be repeated. Thankfully, we have “flattened the curve” and prevented our health care system from being overwhelmed — the original goal of the shutdowns. Now, fewer than 4% of hospital beds are occupied by coronavirus patients. Despite this success, Wolf renewed his disaster declaration, giving him extraordinary power over employers and employees alike, for 90 more days.

In contrast, Pennsylvanians overwhelmingly favor a safe reopening. Seventy-four percent of voters supported lawmakers’ aim to reopen businesses that agree to follow CDC safety guidelines, according to new polling. Voters also identified “jobs and the economy” as their number one priority — even above health care.

That’s why the Legislature acted to restore the balance of power in state government with a bipartisan vote to end the disaster declaration.

It was the right move at the right time. The evidence is mounting that Wolf’s shutdown order has had an excessive negative impact.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found Pennsylvania’s shutdown was earlier, more expansive, and had fewer exemptions than most other states, resulting in an unemployment spike. A record 2.5 million Pennsylvanians have lost their jobs since March. The unemployment rate is now the highest since the Great Depression.

Lawmakers are demanding we get back on track while still taking measures to protect the health of our citizens.

While some economic harm was unavoidable, Wolf’s policies were unfair to local small businesses. He inexplicably shut down small retailers, including garden center and appliance stores, while allowing big box stores to remain open. 

While most areas of the state are already in the less-restricted phases of Wolf’s color-coded reopening plan, the governor’s decision to renew his disaster declaration shows his reluctance to relinquish extreme powers meant only for an emergency.

The House and Senate, after leading the pushback that drove Wolf to finally begin making reasonable concessions, are now taking a bold stand for their struggling constituents by passing a concurrent resolution to end Wolf’s declaration once and for all.

A recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling in Friends of Danny Devito v. Wolf suggests the Legislature has the authority to do just that. The court wrote, “We note that the Emergency Code temporarily limits the Executive Order to ninety days unless renewed and provides the General Assembly with the ability to terminate the order at any time.”

Nonetheless, Wolf is refusing to end his declaration and the matter will have to be settled in court. He should recognize that Pennsylvanians rose to the challenges of the coronavirus. We stayed home. We flattened the curve. Many sacrificed their own jobs and businesses in their heroic efforts to protect vulnerable neighbors.

Now that the initial emergency is past, it’s time to return to representative government. And it’s time to let all businesses reopen that can adhere to CDC guidelines. The longer we wait, the more local businesses will close, and the more damage will be done to communities across the commonwealth.