(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania lawmakers on Tuesday approved a plan to reopen nonessential businesses, further fueling tensions with the Wolf administration over its March 23 shut down order implemented to stifle the spread of the coronavirus.
The House voted 107-95 to approve Senate Bill 613, which would require the governor to develop a plan that reopens businesses in accordance with less restrictive guidance from the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). All Democrats and two Republicans – from districts in suburban Philadelphia, the epicenter of the state’s outbreak – rejected the measure as a dangerous and baseless move to prioritize the economy over public health.
More than 25,000 residents have tested positive for COVID-19 since the Department of Health announced the state’s first case on March 6. As of Tuesday, 584 residents have died and nearly 2,400 remain hospitalized.
Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine warned lawmakers against passing SB 613 last week, describing it as “reckless and irresponsible.” She credits social distancing for flattening the curve and driving daily case counts down over the last week, but told reporters now is not the time for complacency.
“The mitigation factors are absolutely critical to our state plan to deal with Covid-19,” she said Monday. “To do it [reopening] now … would be a mistake. That would cost lives and lead to the potential overwhelming of our health care system.”
But House Republicans insist the bill creates a plan for the future and prepares for a discussion about how to proceed once temporary quarantine measures are lifted. House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said Gov. Tom Wolf’s day-by-day management of the crisis has led to inconsistencies in how mitigation strategies are enforced and created a cascade of unintended consequences – like an unemployment compensation system broken by the weight of 1.4 million residents now out of work.
“This is a novel virus. It’s new. There is no playbook for this,” he said. “But what has happened, you’ve got a wide swath, 1.4 million on unemployment and relying on a system that simply cannot handle it. That’s definitely stressing the system, but that’s also not having a plan. Managing the moment is important, but that can’t be the only plan.”
He said during a public address Monday evening that he envisions three phases for the state’s response to COVID-19: mitigation, transition and “a new normal.” While the administration has yet to define a metric for when the state can switch into “transitional” phase two and being staggered openings, Wolf said he wants to see a sustained decline in new cases and an increase in the stockpile of personal protective equipment and ventilators needed for treating patients.
“We are making real progress – as you can see from Dr. Levine’s daily updates – in bending the curve and flattening the surge,” he said. “People are still dying, the economy is still tanking, and we know that the draconian steps we are now taking cannot go on forever.”
The Senate will return to session Wednesday, where SB 613 will await a concurrence vote.