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Gov. Wolf lashes out at 'cowardly' acts of politicians, business leaders who threaten to defy closure orders

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Gov. Tom Wolf lashed out Monday in response to leaders in several counties — including Dauphin and Lebanon — who have indicated that they will move to the yellow phase of the coronavirus recovery efforts before the state officially moves them there.

Wolf said the state and its residents are in the middle of a war, and that business owners who open before it is safe and the politicians who encourage it are “choosing to desert in the face of the enemy.”

He added: “The politicians who are encouraging the people who they were elected to lead to quit the fight are acting in a most cowardly way.”

Counties that do not comply with the state guidelines for remaining closed based on the red, yellow and green phases risk losing discretionary funding from the state, he said.

“We can’t afford to have people desert, so the reward for desertion cannot be that you’re just like everybody else and get discretionary funding. Discretionary funding will go to those places that are doing everything they ought to do to keep their citizens safe,” he said.

He said politicians are putting business owners at risk of losing their health department certificates, liquor licenses, certificates of occupancy and insurance.

However, he said during the press conference that he does not intend to sue county governments that don’t comply with his order.

In a press release following his press conference, Wolf reiterated that “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.”

Reopening decisions are based on the advice of scientists, medical professionals, and the state’s epidemiologists, the release said, and use case counts, modeling, geographic location, contact tracing and testing capabilities for individual counties, regions and the state.

Each county is considered individually before deciding on placement into the red, yellow or green phases, he said. Yellow counties have a lower risk of virus spread. Red counties have a higher risk of virus spread. 

“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,” Wolf said in the press release. “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.”

Wolf said he can’t change where federal CARES Act funding goes, or certain dollars that go toward health care. But he said the following consequences are possible in counties that do not abide by the law to remain closed:

• 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. 

• Businesses in counties that do not abide by the law will no longer be eligible for business liability insurance and the protections it provides. 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 will be at risk of losing their liquor license.

• 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.

Later, in his press conference Wolf said that U.S. Supreme Court and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court have ruled that under the state constitution, he has the power to close businesses.

Several counties including Dauphin and Lebanon have pushed back against Wolf’s actions regarding businesses and the phases of reopening the state.

Dauphin County Commissioner Jeff Haste issued a scathing letter on Friday in which he told Wolf to stop running the state as a “dictatorship.”

Commissioner Mike Pries tweeted out the following Friday night:

“BREAKING NEWS:  Dauphin County will be joining Lebanon County and move to Phase Yellow of #COVID19 Phased Reopening Plan on May 15, 2020.”

Wolf has not moved Dauphin County into the yellow phase, and it appears based on the metrics being used that it would be moved there on or by May 15.

Both Haste and Pries are Republicans. Wolf is a Democrat.

A letter Friday sent by a number of Lebanon County elected officials also said that, whether Wolf decides to move it there or not, Lebanon County is moving into the yellow phase for reopening Pennsylvania on May 15. All the signees are Republicans.

Also over the weekend, Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo said that prosecutions for violations of Gov. Tom Wolf’s orders related to COVID-19 would only occur in extraordinary circumstances. 

In Beaver County on Friday, its board of commissioners announced that the district attorney there will not prosecute businesses that violate orders and reopen.

Wolf said during his press conference, in response to a question about whether he has talked to Attorney General Josh Shapiro about stepping in in areas where district attorneys have said they won’t prosecute: “No, I have not. Nor do I intend to.”

Here are Wolf’s opening comments in their entirety from his Monday press conference.

 

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"We Pennsylvanians are in a fight for our lives. The enemy is a deadly virus set on destroying us. Over the past two months, this enemy has infected almost 60,000 of our fellow citizens. It has killed almost 4,000 of us. These are our loved ones, our friends, our neighbors. It has threatened to overwhelm our health care system. And it hasn’t finished with us yet. Still, over this past weekend, some have decided to surrender to this enemy. These are politicians who were elected to serve their fellow citizens. Others are business owners who have chosen to serve their customers by putting them in harm’s way. These folks are choosing to desert in the face of the enemy, in the middle of a war that we Pennsylvanians are winning and must win.

"Let me share a few facts with you. We are indeed showing signs of success in this fight. We have begun to flatten the curve of infection in many parts of the commonwealth, which is why 24 counties have already moved into the yellow zone, and 13 more will move into the yellow zone on Friday. That’s over half the counties in the commonwealth. Meanwhile, we have bought valuable time. This means we have not overwhelmed our health care systems. This means we have done a better job providing our heroic front-line health workers with the materials they need to fight this deadly fight. This means we have given our economy the time to increase the supply of tests to improve our chances to one day beat this enemy. But the fight is not yet over, and this is not the time to give up.

"We have fought this deadly enemy in the best way we can. This war has called on every single Pennsylvanian to fight, and we have, heroically. It has been a new kind of heroism, in many ways a quiet heroism, but a heroism nonetheless. We Pennsylvanians have sacrificed in ways we could never have imagined. We’ve separated ourselves from our families. We’ve isolated ourselves in our homes. We have shuttered our businesses. We have closed our schools. These heroic acts deserve to be met not by surrendering but by staying the course, and that’s what I intend to do.

"To those politicians who decide to cave in to this coronavirus, they need to understand the consequences of their cowardly act. The funding we have put aside to help with fighting this crisis will go to the folks who are doing their part, and that includes our CARES Act funding, which will be used to support counties that are following the orders to prevent the spread and the medical communities who are treating patients. However, other discretionary funding won’t go to counties that put us all at risk by operating illegally.

"To the politicians urging businesses to risk their lives and to risk the lives of their customers or their employees by opening prematurely, they need to understand that they are engaging in behavior that is both selfish and unsafe.

"You business owners, these politicians put you at risk of losing your health department certificate. They put you business owners at risk of losing your liquor license. They put you business owners at risk of losing your certificate of occupancy. All these depend upon you doing everything you can to keep your patrons safe. And by opening before the evidence suggests you should, you’re taking undue risks with the safety of your customers. That’s not only morally wrong, it’s also really bad business.

"Businesses that do follow the whims of local politicians and ignore the law and the welfare of their customers will probably find themselves uninsured because insurance does not cover things that happen to businesses breaking the law. Let me be clear. Employees that fear for their safety because a business has opened illegally, they don’t have to go to work. Instead, they can stay at home, stay safe, and collect their unemployment benefits.

"Finally, the politicians who are encouraging the people who they were elected to lead to quit the fight are acting in a most cowardly way. This is not a time to give up. This is not the time to surrender. This is the time to rededicate ourselves to the task of beating this virus. The point is, we are fighting a war that has taken the lives of too many people. We are winning the war, but it has not been easy. It calls for sacrifice. It calls for heroism of a sort we have never asked of ourselves before. And it calls for all of us, every single one of us, to fight this war together. We all owe this to ourselves, and we owe it to each other. I intend to keep fighting, and I believe the overwhelming majority of my fellow Pennsylvanians intend to keep fighting, too. And with that unity, I know we can win. Thank you."