After a number of Pennsylvania counties announced over the weekend that they will defy him and move to reopen businesses sooner than is permitted under an executive order he signed to help slow the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Tom Wolf warned them Monday that they will face “negative consequences” if they follow through on their promise.
Among the growing list of counties whose leaders have said they will move from the red to yellow phase of Wolf’s reopening plan–with or without his consent–are Dauphin, Lebanon and Schuylkill, whose Republican-controlled county commissions have all voted or announced plans to vote on authorizing the rebellion.
Berks County commissioners also said they want their county moved to the intermediate stage of Wolf’s three-phase plan, and a Lehigh Valley lawmaker Friday told Wolf, a Democrat, that Lehigh and Northampton counties should be moved to the yellow phase.
State Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-18) appeared to break ranks with other Democrats–inserting herself in a political divide that so far has existed mainly along party lines–to tell Wolf the expert advice of two local infectious disease clinicians is sufficient evidence for the counties to begin to reopen.
Lehigh currently ranks sixth and Northampton seventh on a list of Pennsylvania counties with the most COVID-19 cases. Nearly 300 residents in the counties have died from the disease to date, per the state Department of Health.
Boscola made her move after Wolf said Friday that Lehigh, Northampton and 28 other counties would remain “red” until at least June 4. With the exception of Beaver County, all of the counties on that timetable are in south central and eastern Pennsylvania.
Twenty-four north central and northwestern counties moved to the yellow phase at 12:01 a.m. Friday, and another 13 counties in southwestern Pennsylvania will do so May 15.
In a news release Monday, Wolf said he won’t allow residents to be endangered by county leaders acting in defiance of the state.
“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,” he 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 negative consequences the counties and individual businesses could face for reopening ahead of the state’s schedule were described as follows:
- Counties will not be eligible for federal stimulus discretionary funds the state receives and intends to provide to counties with populations of fewer than 500,000 people.
- Businesses in counties that do not abide by the law will no longer be eligible for business liability insurance. Wolf said the Pennsylvania Department of Insurance released details of this earlier today.
- Restaurants that reopen for dine-in service in counties that have not been authorized to reopen could their liquor license, if they have one.
The news release noted that “county residents receiving unemployment compensation will be able to continue to receive benefits even if their employer reopens. Employees may choose not to return out of concern for personal safety and safety of co-workers.”
“Pennsylvanians are fighting for our lives,” Wolf said. “We have fought this deadly virus in the best way we can, and sacrificed in ways we could never have imagined. It has been a new kind of heroism–in many ways a quiet heroism. These heroic acts deserve to be met not by surrendering, but by staying the courses.”
“Reopening too soon can cause COVID-19 to spread, for cases and deaths to spike and for closures to be reinstated perhaps for much longer,” the news release said. “Reopening decisions are based on the advice of scientists, medical professionals and the state’s epidemiologists. Factors that inform decisions include case counts, modeling, geographic location, contact tracing and testing capabilities for individual counties, regions and the state.”
Department of Health data for COVID-19 released Monday indicated a sharp drop in the number of confirmed cases overnight, although typically there is a significant decline in the figures reported on Mondays, due to a lag in data caused by weekend facility closures.
The health department confirmed 543 new cases of COVID-19 statewide, which brings the total number of cases since the outbreak began to 57,154.
As of Monday 3,731 Pennsylvanians had died from COVID-19, with approximately two-thirds of the deaths occurring in nursing homes. Additional information along with interactive maps that display case totals by county and zip code may be found on the Department of Health website. Follow the department on Twitter for other updates.
At 2 p.m. Pennsylvania health secretary Dr. Rachel Levine is scheduled to give a livestreamed update on the state’s progress in fighting COVID-19. The stream will be carried on Facebook and on the governor’s website.