- The Washington Times - Monday, May 11, 2020

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf sought Monday to head off a growing revolt against his cautious coronavirus restrictions, threatening to withhold funding from counties and licenses from businesses that seek to reopen ahead of his timetable.

Mr. Wolf, a Democrat who also has feuded with the Republican legislature over the state’s COVID-19 response, warned “cowardly” and “selfish” politicians that the state would withhold discretionary state and federal CARES Act funding to counties that fail to follow his executive orders.

“To those politicians who decide to cave in to this coronavirus, they need to understand the consequences of their cowardly act,” Mr. Wolf said. “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.”

He added: “However, other discretionary funding won’t go to counties that put us all at risk by operating illegally.”

His stern warning came with a half-dozen Republican-led counties moving to take unilateral action to hasten their reopening, backed by sheriffs and district attorneys who have said that they will refuse to penalize or prosecute local businesses that leapfrog ahead of schedule.

“Enough is enough,” Jeff Haste, chairman of the Dauphin County Board of Commissioners, said Friday in a social media post. “It is time to reopen the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and return our state to the people (as prescribed by our Constitution) and not run it as a dictatorship.”

President Trump jumped into the fray Monday by siding with the county commissioners, tweeting that the “great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now, and they are fully aware of what that entails.”

The Pennsylvania skirmish comes as the latest between better-safe-than-sorry Democratic governors and struggling constituents worried that the costs of lockdown have begun to exceed the public-health risks as the curve of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations flattens.

That dynamic has been most apparent in states with Democratic governors and GOP-controlled legislatures, including Louisiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, where Republicans have chafed against the gubernatorial executive mandates setting the coronavirus agenda with little if any legislative input.

In Michigan, legislative Republicans have sued Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to overturn her strict stay-at-home orders, while GOP legislators in Wisconsin have asked the state Supreme Court to squelch Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ “safer at home” order and his ability to extend it.

Louisiana Republicans erupted after Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards extended his stay-at-home order until May 15, advancing legislation to limit his ability to enforce penalties on businesses that violate the shutdown.

Under pressure from Republicans, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said Monday the state would begin its gradual reopening on Friday, adding that he would work with local leaders in more coronavirus-intensive Northern Virginia about allowing them to proceed at a slower pace.

The Virginia Republican Party responded by assailing his “strict, authoritarian and draconian lockdown,” accusing him of offering little in the way of data, details or transparency on how he plans to reopen the state’s economy.

“At this point, Governor Northam’s lockdown is more of an exercise in raw power as opposed to policy,” said party Chairman Jack Wilson.

In Pennsylvania, Republican legislators lost two court fights to limit Mr. Wolf’s authority. A bill to require the governor to adhere to the federal guidance on business shutdowns passed the state legislature without a single Democratic vote, but Mr. Wolf vetoed the measure.

What sparked the local outcry was Mr. Wolf’s recent relaxing of restrictions in stages on some counties but not others. Among those still under the “red phase” order are some sparsely populated rural counties with a conservative political bent.

“There’s been a lot of pushback from counties that either have fewer cases, or they have more cases but almost all of the cases are in nursing homes, which they don’t think should apply to business and other reopenings,” said Nathan Benefield, COO of the free-market Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg.

After allowing 24 counties in the state’s northern tier to move from the “red phase” to the “yellow phase,” the governor added Friday another 13 southwestern counties to the yellow list while extending the stay-at-home restrictions for the remaining red counties until June 1.

Commissioners in Berks, Dauphin, Franklin, Lebanon and Schuylkill counties erupted, according to PennLive, declaring that they will begin moving to the yellow phase even without the state’s blessing.

“We have heard the pleas of our residents who desire the ability to safely re-open their businesses and safely return to work,” said the letter from Schuylkill County, where 437 people have tested positive and 13 have died, according to the Morning Call.

Meanwhile, sheriffs in Cumberland and Perry counties said they would refuse to cite businesses in breach of the governor’s order.

“Our Office will stand with the citizens in defense of all of our Constitutional Rights! Our Office will not be enforcing any ‘order’ that violates our Constitutional Rights,” said the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office in a Facebook post. “Sheriff Anderson has stated ‘I have no intentions in turning local business owners into criminals.’”

The Lebanon County District Attorney’s office said it would not prosecute reopened business as long as they comply with social-distancing, face masks, and sanitation requirements.

“Law enforcement exists to protect and serve our communities; we do not exist to enforce arbitrary regulations which rip away a roof over a family’s head or food in a child’s mouth,” Lebanon County DA Pier Hess Graf. “Our police officers have tough enough jobs without the added duty of prosecuting local small businesses.”

Mr. Haste said that 25% of the county’s 764 cases are in nursing homes, as were 65% of the deaths. Remove them from the equations, he said, and just 0.2% of the population has tested positive.

“I have great sympathy for those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19,” said Mr. Haste in his post. “I also have great concern for the families that now have to struggle with financial concerns, mental health stress, addiction and more because of the shutdown. Again, our governor has pitted groups of Pennsylvanians against one another.”

He added: “And he has not included county commissioners in this process.”

At his Monday press conference, Mr. Wolf spoke directly to business owners, warning them not to “follow the whims of politicians and ignore the law and welfare of the customers,” saying they would put their health-department certification, liquor licensing and insurance coverage at risk.

“All these depend on your doing everything you can to keep your patrons safe, and by opening before the evidence suggests you should, you’re taking undo risks with the safety of your customers,” said Mr. Wolf. “That’s not only morally wrong, it’s also really bad business.”

Mr. Wolf also had a message for workers: Don’t feel any pressure to return to the job in counties where businesses are supposed to remain shuttered.

“Let me be clear: Employees that fear for their safety because a business has opened illegally, well, they don’t have to go to work,” he said. “They can stay home and stay safe and collect their unemployment benefits.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Health on Monday reported 57,154 confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases and 3,731 deaths among the state’s population of 12.8 million, considerably fewer than the hotspots of neighboring New York and New Jersey.

Mr. Wolf said the state was “showing signs of success in this fight,” although the novel coronavirus “has threatened to overwhelm our healthcare system and it hasn’t finished with us yet.”

“Still, over this past weekend, some have decided to surrender to this enemy,” he said, adding, “These folks are choosing to desert in the face of the enemy in the middle of a war that we Pennsylvanians are winning and that we must win.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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