Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday vetoed a bill that would have let Pennsylvania school districts alone determine how many spectators can attend school sporting events, setting up his latest clash with the Republican-controlled legislature over acceptable crowd limits during the pandemic.
In rejecting the legislation, Wolf said lawmakers were ignoring the reality that the coronavirus “really likes it when you bring a lot of people together.
“As much as I hate that fact, [and] … everybody hates that fact, it’s a fact,” he said Monday morning. “And instead of ignoring it, we ought to try to figure out what we can do to keep that virus from infecting too many people.”
But Republican legislative leaders pledged to override what House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre/Mifflin) called a “ridiculous” veto. In both the Senate and the House, the bill passed by more than the two-thirds majority that would be needed to overcome a veto.
In a statement, Benninghoff said the governor was “directly opposed to children and families looking for some semblance of normalcy.”
Under the state’s current guidelines, school districts are allowed to approve team activities, but sporting events remain subject to the state’s limits of 25 people for an indoor gathering and 250 people for an outdoor gathering. The bill would have given schools exclusive authority to control crowd size, as well as to make decisions about sports, other extracurricular activities, and competitions.
The bill is the latest turf for battle by the GOP-led legislature against the pandemic restrictions imposed by the Democratic governor.
The toll of the coronavirus is mounting in both the region and nation: Pennsylvania surpassed 150,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, while New Jersey surpassed 200,000 on Monday. And as the day neared an end, the COVID-19 death toll in the United States was poised to reach 200,000.
New Jersey reported 396 new cases and two deaths, while Philadelphia announced 242 cases, representing totals since Friday, and one death. Pennsylvania officials reported 234 new cases on Monday and 733 new cases on Sunday, along with 48 new deaths over the two days.
Wolf’s veto, which was expected, came a week after a federal judge ruled some key components of his virus mitigation strategy — including limits on gatherings — were unconstitutional, in a challenge that was brought in part by House Republicans.
That ruling, Wolf said Monday, “didn’t help” talks between his administration and the legislature but has not changed his approach to the pandemic.
It also set up a federal court battle as the governor’s administration vowed to appeal. At his news briefing, Wolf said he didn’t understand the ruling for the same reason he vetoed the bill — that it was “ignoring the virus” at a time when the state needed to figure out how to keep people from getting sick.
One of the state’s restrictions loosened Monday, when Pennsylvania restaurants were allowed to expand indoor dining to 50% occupancy — except in Philadelphia, where capacity remains capped at 25%. Under the state’s new rules, restaurants that have self-certified that they are complying with coronavirus safety measures can expand their indoor service.
New curfews for alcohol sales also went into effect. As of Monday, eateries are expected to stop selling or serving alcohol at 11 p.m.
At the news briefing in Dauphin County, Wolf said Pennsylvania has built up a large stockpile of personal protective equipment and touted the state’s preparedness for any possible resurgence.
As of Monday, 400 people were hospitalized in the commonwealth and the state’s positivity rate for coronavirus tests was 3.8%, according to the Department of Health.
“That’s the kind of thing we need to recognize,” the governor said of the relatively low rates. “The crude, broad-brush things we had to do to buy time back in March and April, we don’t have to do right now.”
But he noted that the commonwealth was not out of the woods, with temperatures dropping and flu season approaching — and, though the spring and summer spikes are in the rear-view mirror, cases rising due to some college students returning to campuses or off-campus living.
“Apparently students do today what they did when I was in college. They go to parties. Who knew?” Wolf joked. “So we have to make sure we’re doing everything we can to keep our students safe.”
After months of dealing with the pandemic, New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli warned people against giving in to “pandemic fatigue.” She urged those who are feeling weary, depressed, or helpless to get more sleep, go for walks, eat healthy food, unplug from social media, and connect with others in phone or video chats.
New Jersey saw a 12% increase in suspected overdose deaths from January to July 2020 compared with the same time frame in 2019. In May, the state saw the highest number of suspected drug-related deaths in any one-month period.
Gov. Phil Murphy said health officials have been concerned for weeks about the disproportionate number of young adults becoming infected, but he said churches, gyms and restaurants have complied with public health guidelines.
There has been no evidence of in-school transmission since classes opened for in-person learning, he said, and no outbreaks have been linked to sports teams. Some players on teams have contracted COVID-19, Murphy said, but contact tracing has suggested that they caught it elsewhere.
“We’re going to continue to test the heck out of the state,” the governor said.