On March 19, 2020, my family’s business was declared “non-essential” by Gov. Tom Wolf. At around 5 p.m., our paint manufacturing company, Jamestown Coating Technologies, was told to shut down. We were given just three hours to comply. Our business, founded in 1885, weathered two world wars, a Great Depression, and the aftermath of terror attacks. Now we faced another existential threat—this time from our own government.
What Wolf didn’t know when he decided paints and coatings are non-essential is that we provide components vital to food and medicine infrastructure. Jamestown Coatings supplies paint products to various industries — including food, beverage, and pharmaceutical packaging — that are classified as essential. Food and drugs can’t be sold without packages, and packaging can’t be labeled without coatings. We also have customers that make aluminum components for the U.S. Department of Defense. We even sell coatings for COVID-19 testing kits.
Shutting us down would disrupt supply chains, causing a catastrophe for critical businesses and their customers.
So, we did what we had to: we remained open despite the order. Within about a week, the police contacted us for violating the governor’s shutdown mandate. We faced fines if we remained open. But 45 employees and their families depend on their jobs at Jamestown Coatings, and all of our customers depend on our products. We weren’t about to give up on them.
I happen to spend a lot of time in Harrisburg, so when we heard about a waiver process that might allow us to stay open, I started making phone calls. The very night the police called, I obtained a letter from someone in the governor’s office explicitly stating that we could stay open since our products were used in essential businesses. I sent the letter to the police and hung copies on our doors. Our employees and customers were saved.
But I recognize that I was fortunate to have relationships in Harrisburg. Most businesses don’t. And no one should need them to legally run a business.
After all, who is Wolf to tell thousands of families that their livelihoods are non-essential?
Though we were allowed to stay open, three of our largest Pennsylvania customers were shut down. They couldn’t buy from us for months and our revenue dropped by a quarter.
Imagine the devastating effects on businesses that were completely shut down.
Our business was one of the lucky ones. We were able to rebound and keep our workforce intact. But I have watched as friends, family, and customers have been shut down and denied the basic right to earn a living.
I’ve never been registered as anything besides independent, and I’m not a big fan of any political party. But I am a big fan of limiting government officials’ power to act unilaterally at both state and federal levels. When one person has that much power, even plans that are well-intentioned can go awry. And while the pandemic was new and people were understandably scared, that shouldn’t justify arbitrary decisions that often have no bearing on public health.
Now, there is a way for Pennsylvanians to protect their constitutional freedoms and their livelihoods. Currently, state law allows the governor to declare a state of emergency for 90 days, but there is no limit to how often the governor can renew it, and Wolf has done so four times since March of 2020. Two constitutional amendments on the May 18 ballot would correct that, if approved.
One amendment would limit an emergency declaration to 21 days; the General Assembly would have to approve extensions. The other would give the Legislature the power to end an emergency by majority vote. These are commonsense checks and balances that should have been all along.
A vote for these amendments is a vote for separation of powers, giving the Legislature a say in an extended emergency, and allowing the peoples’ representatives to do their jobs. But just as importantly, a vote for the constitutional amendments is a vote against giving one person nearly limitless power to declare thousands of livelihoods “non-essential.”
Michael Walton is CEO of Jamestown Coating Technologies in Mercer Co.