Wolf Yanks Virus Funding From Rebellious County

Jul 16, 2020

Gov. Tom Wolf followed through on his threat to yank COVID-19 funding from a county that defied his shutdown orders, while his administration targeted bars, restaurants and large gatherings statewide Thursday in an effort to prevent a wider resurgence of the virus that officials say could jeopardize students' return to school.

Wolf withheld nearly $13 million in funding from Lebanon County, where local Republican leaders voted in mid-May to lift pandemic restrictions in defiance of the Democratic governor. Pennsylvania distributed $625 million of its federal coronavirus relief allotment to counties that did not get direct aid from the federal government. Wolf's decision left Lebanon as the only one of Pennsylvania's 67 counties to have not gotten any of the federal money.

Asked about it at a news conference Thursday, Wolf blamed the county's GOP-controlled Board of Commissioners and suggested that Lebanon residents should kick them out of office.

“Don't come and say you want something from the state when you haven't followed the rules. There are consequences. These are the consequences. I think I'm being consistent here,” he said.

The region's congressman, GOP Rep. Dan Meuser, said Wolf lacked the legal authority to withhold the money and implored him to release it, writing to the governor: “Lives and livelihoods are at stake.” The local chamber of commerce called it an “unacceptable exclusion of just one county” and said Wolf's decision unfairly punishes small businesses, nonprofits and others.

A message was left with the county commissioners.

Amid the partisan fight over funding, Pennsylvania reimposed statewide restrictions Thursday on bars, restaurants, and larger indoor gatherings — now limited to 25 people, down from 250 — in response to what Wolf has called an “unsettling climb” in virus infections.

Under Wolf's order, nightclubs are shut down, bars are closed unless they also offer dine-in meals, and bars and restaurants are limited to 25% capacity.

Critics questioned the need for statewide restrictions when only a few areas of the state have been seeing rising case numbers, and confusion reigned among some bar and restaurant owners over what exactly constitutes a "meal" — do french fries count?

Businesses impacted by the order said they're barely hanging on.

“I don’t know what to do. Do you close your doors? Do you keep them open? It can’t keep going on like this," said Suzie Domasky, an owner of Ferrante’s Lakeview in Westmoreland County.

Ferrante's, which hosts weddings and other big events and was shuttered for three months in the spring because of pandemic restrictions, immediately lost another big booking — a Christmas party — in the wake of Wolf's latest business shutdown.

And because of the statewide limitations on gatherings, the events that do remain on Ferrante’s calendar will only be able to accommodate just a fraction of what they normally would, Domasky said.

“Every time the governor announces something, I lose more money by the day” she said.

Wolf has warned of increased viral spread and said the new restrictions are needed to help keep Pennsylvania's numbers manageable, especially with schools planning to reopen for the fall. Disease modeling from PolicyLab at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia shows infections rising sharply in Philadelphia and the suburbs in coming weeks.