Governors are again making coronavirus headlines, and this time not because they are filling a leadership void — but because they are putting their constituents at risk. Most egregious is Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, who is ignoring a spike in cases and hospitalizations in his state. Instead, he is spreading disinformation about the coronavirus entering the U.S. from immigrants crossing the Southern border.
It’s not hard for Democratic governors to look good by comparison. But in a pandemic, being better than those who deny reality is not enough.
Pennsylvania’s Gov. Tom Wolf was agile and determined in his response in the early days of the pandemic. He signed a statewide emergency declaration the same day Pennsylvania confirmed its first case. Wolf also ordered school and business shutdowns before his counterparts in New York and New Jersey.
These measures are likely part of the reason that Pennsylvania has significantly lower overall and recent coronavirus death rates compared with New York and New Jersey — as well as fewer total cases per 100,000 than all its neighboring states except for Maryland.
These moves also came with a political cost. Pennsylvania Republicans, more interested in creating culture wars than curbing the spread of the coronavirus, have used Wolf’s actions to paint him as a tyrant. In the May election, Republicans successfully stripped Wolf (and future governors) of the ability to extend emergency declarations without the legislature’s approval.
So it’s understandable why Wolf would be timid to impose any new mandate or restrictions.
But he needs to find a way to move forward, especially as the delta variant spreads. New York, New Jersey, and Maryland have higher vaccination rates than Pennsylvania. The more unvaccinated Pennsylvanians, the more likely the commonwealth will see a resurgence of death and cases.
There is more Wolf can do to curb the spread of the coronavirus, protect children, and increase the number of vaccinated Pennsylvanians. Republican backlash may follow, but the actions aren’t especially bold.
Unlike the federal government, the states of California, New York, and Virginia, a growing list of private companies, and, according to reports, soon the U.S. military, Pennsylvania does not require state employees to be vaccinated as a condition of employment. Wolf said last week that his administration is “still deciding” whether to make such a requirement. The state is the second-largest employer in Pennsylvania. Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey also hasn’t imposed a vaccine mandate, except for some health-care workers.
Mayor Jim Kenney also does not require employees of Philadelphia to be vaccinated. He should.
Unlike his counterpart in New Jersey, Wolf said that he will not require masks in schools and will leave the decision to school districts. Wolf knows that many districts will not require masking, and the spike of children sick with COVID-19 in Louisiana and Texas should serve as a dire warning.
Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, should lead by example as responsible employers in a pandemic. Similarly, Wolf shouldn’t allow the health of kids to be threatened because of a culture war waged by Republicans. Wolf has the power to keep more people healthy, let children return to in-person school, and keep the economy running. Doing better than Florida is just not good enough.