Pennsylvania Republicans’ push to loosen Gov. Tom Wolf’s closure of most businesses mirrors a national struggle over when and how to ease economic and social restrictions put in place to fight the coronavirus, a fraught debate that weighs loss of life and loss of livelihood.
It was on full display in Harrisburg on Wednesday as state senators — some wearing gloves and masks in the Capitol and others videoconferencing from home — gave final approval to a bill that would allow many Pennsylvania businesses to reopen.
Wolf’s order "was an overreach from the beginning. He has the broadest and strictest stay-in-place order of … any state in the nation,” Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai said.
The vote came as President Donald Trump has fixated on reopening at least parts of the country by May 1, or sooner — and rolled out new guidelines to do so Thursday. A rising chorus on the right argues that the current limitations are unsustainable, even when considering the risk of continuing to spread the virus.
“Younger and healthier people with some reasonable precautions really could go back to work quite safely, and that’s absolutely necessary. We are not in a sustainable place right now where the government is attempting to be a substitute for an economy,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) said, suggesting that less-affected regions of Pennsylvania could return to work sooner.
As Trump’s push continued, Pennsylvania’s Democratic senator, Bob Casey, said the decision should not be “based upon the stupid gut instinct of a politician.” The debate has mostly broken along familiar party lines.
“If we get this wrong and politicians screw it up and you have an outbreak of cases in a city, or a curve that was flattening and it goes through the roof, we’re going to have an economy that will be shut down a lot longer,” Casey said. “Let’s act like adults, listen to the experts, and then make a concerned, informed judgment … based upon science.”
The dispute is playing out across the country, as the pandemic spreads to new areas, claiming more lives while easing somewhat in early hot spots, as economists warn of the worst downturn since the Great Depression in the 1930s and Trump eyes a reelection campaign that was built around the strength of the economy.
In Michigan, Kentucky, and North Carolina this week, protesters, many in Trump paraphernalia and packed together, called for reopening the economy. A similar “Put Pennsylvanians Back to Work” event is planned in Harrisburg for April 20. On Thursday, Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said his state’s economy would begin a slow restart May 1.
Even some Democrats in states that are coming through the worst of the crisis, including California, have begun talking about what the next steps might look like, though they are doing so in far less immediate terms than Republicans.
Politically, members of both parties believe the presidential race now hinges almost entirely on how Trump handles the coronavirus. The debate is the latest public issue to revolve around one question: Do you trust Trump, or not?
“We’ll be the comeback kids, all of us,” Trump said Wednesday. “We want to get our country back.”
Thursday morning, Democrat Joe Biden shot back on NBC, “We should not send you back to work 'til it’s safe to send you back to work.... The way you revive the economy is, you defeat the disease."
Many medical experts have warned that reopening too soon could lead to a resurgence of the virus that forces even longer business closures, and that the U.S. still lacks the widespread testing capacity needed to track and control the virus. Because people can be asymptomatic for up to 14 days, there’s little certainty about where it may have already spread.
Polling suggests bipartisan support for moving slowly.
In Pennsylvania this week, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill that would allow the reopening of businesses that abide by federal social distancing requirements. The law would overrule Wolf’s order to close certain nonessential businesses. Wolf said Wednesday that he would veto the bill, and there are not enough votes in the legislature to override him.
Democrats called the push “theatrics.”
“Bills like this, even if they don’t go anywhere, have a tangible effect on people,” Rep. Kevin Boyle, a Democrat from Northeast Philadelphia, said. "When government stops speaking with one voice and just becomes a partisan issue, inevitably you will see people adopt the position of the political party that they identify with.”
As is the case nationally, most Republicans lawmakers in Pennsylvania represent more rural areas where the virus hasn’t had as big of an impact. The bill passed along party lines in the House with the exception of two Republicans who represent hard-hit Montgomery County voting against it.
“Before we get back to business we need to save lives. The peak has not yet reached the commonwealth,” said Rep. Tom Murt, a Republican whose district includes parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County.
Murt said he’s “very concerned” at the political divide. “It wasn’t partisan for me," he said. "Because I know right from wrong.”
Wolf has said the state is using “common sense," and has granted waivers for about 40,000 businesses.
“We’re trying to do everything we can do to make sure we are keeping Pennsylvanians safe.…. I think what we need to do is recognize the course we’re on right now is the least bad choice we have to make," Wolf said.
Toomey said he had spoken with Wolf about reopening at least parts of the Pennsylvania economy, particularly in regions that have seen few, if any, coronavirus cases. While he said hot spots should still face restrictions, and that large-scale activities such as sporting events should remain banned, other limits could be immediately loosened for jobs such as construction, where social distancing is possible.
Some pushing for changes acknowledge that they are proposing a difficult balancing act, and that easing social distancing and other restrictions will cause more people to get sick and die.
In a video posted on Twitter, Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) said infections and deaths will never “be zero,” that any opening will "increase the number of infections, it’s going to increase the number of deaths,” but that "we cannot keep the country in this condition for six months, for nine months, for a year until we have a vaccine.”
Governors and mayors in hard-hit areas have warned that the virus doesn’t respect boundaries. In the federal system, most of the decisions will rest with states.
Groups of governors on the East and West Coasts (mostly Democrats) have formed coalitions to coordinate reopening their states regardless of what Trump advises — though many governors and citizens will take cues from the president. Most have said their states are not ready to reopen on his timeline.
A national poll released Wednesday suggested that voters may have more patience than Trump: 81% said Americans should continue to social distance as long as is needed "even if it means continued damage to the economy.” Just 10% supported stopping restrictions "to stimulate the economy, even if it means increasing the spread of coronavirus,” according to the survey by Politico and Morning Consult.
Among Republicans, 72% agreed with continued social distancing.
The divide is not entirely partisan. Some Republican governors, such as DeWine and Maryland’s Larry Hogan, have taken aggressive steps to limit movement. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, this week began laying out scenarios for potentially lifting the stiff restrictions in his state.
He was far more cautious and circumspect than Trump, however, saying, the state would have to meet a high bar of preparedness and refusing to put a timeline on any plans.