Gov. Tom Wolf attacked local elected officials making plans to reopen in defiance of his shutdown orders as cowards deserting the pandemic battlefield, threatening Monday to block aid to rebellious Pennsylvania counties in an escalating political fight over his administration's handling of the coronavirus.
*This post was updated at 3:11 p.m. to include new information.
The normally mild-mannered Democrat fired back after several GOP-controlled counties declared themselves in open rebellion against his restrictions on businesses and movement. Wolf said local officials who pronounce their communities open for business are acting selfishly and risking lives.
“The politicians who are encouraging the people they were elected to lead to quit the fight are acting in a most cowardly way," said Wolf, asserting they are “choosing to desert in the face of the enemy.”
He threatened to withhold COVID-19 funding to counties that act unilaterally and "put us all at risk by operating illegally.” The federal relief law signed by President Donald Trump in late March provides about $5 billion to Pennsylvania, of which $1 billion was direct aid to seven heavily populated counties. The Wolf administration and lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Legislature must decide how to spend the rest of the money.
GOP officials in a growing number of counties are planning to lift some of Wolf’s restrictions on their own, including his stay-at-home orders and shutdown of businesses deemed “non-life-sustaining.” The counties assert they have enough testing, equipment and hospital capacity.
Republicans and some business owners have accused Wolf of moving too slowly to reopen Pennsylvania's battered economy. They also criticize the opaque process by which his administration granted waivers to some businesses to stay open during the shutdown, while denying waivers to others.
“Governor, we don’t question your motives; however, given all that has unfolded over the past several weeks, we must question your methods," Lancaster County officials wrote to Wolf. “We have consistently called for a data-driven, collaborative and transparent approach to getting through this crisis. In refusing to do so, you have lost the will of many people to continue on the extremely narrow path you have outlined.”
Along with Lancaster County, Dauphin, Franklin, Lebanon and Schuylkill counties also indicated they plan to lift pandemic restrictions without Wolf's blessing beginning this week.
Cumberland County, after making noise about reopening over the weekend, “clarified” its position Monday, saying in an open letter to residents: "This move, we are advised, has no legal basis, and would not stand up, and could actually endanger the business licenses of those who defy the state of emergency declaration.”
New infections have been trending down in much of the state after nearly two months of social distancing, and Wolf has been easing restrictions in lightly impacted counties. But frustration among counties that remain locked down is growing amid mounting economic devastation. Around 2 million people have lost their jobs since mid-March, including self-employed and gig workers.
York County restaurant owner Themi Sacarellos reopened his two diners Sunday and offered table service — something that is prohibited everywhere in the state right now — saying eight weeks was long enough to be shut down.
He said he eliminated more than half the tables to promote social distancing, while staff are wearing masks and using special cleaners on tables and seats.
“We don’t believe we’re defying the governor’s orders,” Sacarellos said Monday. “We believe he’s defying the people.”
In Franklin County, Republican state Rep. Jesse Topper said his county’s decision to support businesses that reopen, even without approval from the state, is driven by frustration and a lack of explanation from the Wolf administration as to why Franklin County hasn’t met the governor’s reopening criteria.
“At some point, I trust the Pennsylvania citizens with their freedoms and that’s the only way we can move forward,” Topper said Monday.
Trump also weighed in on the intensifying political fight, tweeting: “The great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now, and they are fully aware of what that entails.”
But Wolf insists now is not the time to ease restrictions in counties that remain virus hot spots. The virus has sickened over 57,000 in Pennsylvania, of whom more than 3,700 have died.
“This is not a time to surrender. This is the time to rededicated ourselves to the task of beating this virus,” he said.
He warned businesses that choose to “follow the whims of local politicians and ignore the law” by reopening that they risk businesses licenses, certificates of occupancy and other required governmental approvals to operate.
Companies that ignore the shutdown order could also be jeopardizing their insurance coverage and putting themselves at risk of having their claims denied, said his insurance commissioner, Jessica Altman.
She said many policies have provisions that exclude coverage stemming from “illegal acts or conduct,” and could result in denied claims for property damage, protection from liability and other hazards should a business decide to reopen in violation of Wolf’s order.