HARRISBURG, Pa. – 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.
The normally mild-mannered Democrat fired back after several GOP-controlled counties declared themselves in open rebellion against his stay-at-home orders and shutdown of businesses deemed “non-life-sustaining.” The counties assert they have enough testing, equipment and hospital capacity to manage flareups of a virus that has sickened over 57,000 in Pennsylvania, of whom more than 3,700 have died.
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.”
Wolf threatened to withhold COVID-19 funding to counties that act unilaterally and “put us all at risk by operating illegally.” Under the federal emergency relief law signed by President Donald Trump in late March, Pennsylvania has about $4 billion in aid that Wolf, for now, has pledged to work with the GOP-controlled Legislature on how to spend.
Republican officials responded sharply Monday to Wolf's “name-calling” and threats, saying their constituents are suffering economically and desperate to get back to work. They say Wolf has been arbitrary and illogical in deciding what areas of the state to reopen and when, refusing to explain his decisions.
“You can only govern if the people are willing to be governed, and the governor has clearly lost his crowd," said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre.
Nearly all of the counties that are planning to reopen are longtime GOP strongholds that voted heavily for Trump in 2016, helping him become the first Republican to capture the key presidential battleground of Pennsylvania since 1988. Trump was planning to visit the state later this week.
Trump himself weighed in on the intensifying political fight Monday, tweeting: “The great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now, and they are fully aware of what that entails.”
While Wolf still has plenty of Democratic support, Republicans and some business owners have accused him of moving too slowly to restart Pennsylvania's battered and largely shuttered 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.
The dispute over Wolf's reopening plan, which has simmered for weeks, finally boiled over Friday when counties began declaring their intent to go their own way and disregard lockdown orders that Wolf first issued in March using his emergency powers.
"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 — one of the state's most heavily populated — Dauphin, Franklin, Lebanon and Schuylkill counties also indicated they plan to lift pandemic restrictions without Wolf's blessing beginning this week. Berks is moving in that direction, and Huntingdon said it supports businesses that choose to reopen without state permission. Together, those counties represent more than 1.7 million of Pennsylvania's 12.8 million residents.
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.”
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, and there have been miles-long lines at food and milk giveaways.
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 is taking appropriate precautions, eliminating more than half his 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.”
Wolf insisted that now is not the time to ease restrictions in counties that remain virus hot spots.
“This is not a time to surrender. This is the time to rededicate 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 jeopardize their insurance coverage and put 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.
Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak