Pennsylvania Democrats have mostly supported Gov. Tom Wolf as Republicans in the state legislature push him to reopen parts of the economy more quickly, and even contemplated revoking his emergency powers.
But two months after Wolf ordered most of the state’s 12.8 million residents to stay at home and closed all businesses not deemed “life-sustaining,” some in his party are starting to show frustration with the coronavirus lockdowns — and with the governor.
The two top Democrats in the legislature wrote a letter to Wolf on Sunday praising his efforts to protect public health — but also encouraging him to consider permitting real estate activity to resume in a limited capacity. He did so this week.
On Tuesday, Philadelphia-area Democrats asked Wolf to consider allowing curbside pickup at all retail locations in the state. And a Democratic lawmaker from Montgomery County wrote a letter saying residents in her district “have not yet seen evidence that your administration recognizes and sympathizes with the added physical, emotional, and financial suffering they are facing as a result of our prolonged stay-at-home conditions, which I know you do.”
State Sen. Maria Collett, who wrote the letter to Wolf on Tuesday, said Wednesday that the administration has not communicated what steps it is taking to help the Philadelphia region reach the “yellow” phase of Wolf’s three-step reopening plan. Most businesses would be permitted to reopen at that point, with restrictions.
“We feel like we’re alone here,” Collett said, describing “a feeling of abandonment” in her communications with the governor’s office.
Democrats aren’t exactly defecting from the second-term governor, whose handling of the crisis has won broad support in public opinion polls. But a shift is clear.
“On the Democratic side, there’s been fairly strong support and consensus for the governor’s attempts to manage the crisis," said Chris Borick, a pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “On the edges, there’s some frustration and hope for both increased communications efforts to point out that there is struggle and suffering.
“It’s adding to the pressure on the governor,” Borick added. “I don’t think it’s a surprise. I think it’s probably going to, as we move forward into summer, probably even ramp up.”
More than a quarter of the state’s workforce has filed for unemployment benefits since the crisis started. Collett said programs implemented by the state’s Economic Development Department to lessen the pandemic’s devastating impact “have failed this area.”
"It’s really disappointing to me,” said Collett, who also represents parts of Bucks County.
In March, the state launched a $60 million relief fund for small businesses affected by the pandemic. Businesses in Bucks and Montgomery Counties have received just 4% of those funds, even though the counties account for 17% of the state’s general fund revenues, Collett wrote in her letter to Wolf.
“We know here in the Southeast that we are incredible contributors to the economy of the commonwealth," she said in the interview. "To know that contribution isn’t matched necessarily proportionally with dollars here to our district to help our businesses, it is beyond devastating.”
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman will participate in a Facebook Live chat with Collett to answer questions from her constituents Thursday — an event the senator said was scheduled before she sent her letter. She said she hopes that will “start a new conversation.”
Wolf’s office didn’t comment Wednesday.
Other Democrats have been more circumspect.
State Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D., Bucks) was among 16 Senate Democrats who signed a letter to Wolf encouraging him to permit non-"life-sustaining" retail businesses to reopen for curbside pickup throughout the state — a step New Jersey announced last week.
“On the one hand, we have to make sure we don’t risk another spike in the virus,” Santarsiero said in an interview. “On the other hand, we have to be aware of the fact that we have real hardship in both... our small businesses as well as many families who have taken the brunt of this economically.”
“The truth of the matter is we do need to start thinking about getting people back to work," he said. "I really think we’re getting very close to that point. Curbside pickup is part of that question. I think that would really help get things moving again.”
Curbside pickup for retail sales is already available in all counties that have moved from “red” to “yellow” in the state’s color-coded scale of pandemic severity. Forty-nine of 67 counties in the state will have yellow status as of Friday. There are no conversations about allowing curb-side pickup in red counties, Wolf said Wednesday.
“I understand that both chambers or both caucuses are interested in this,” he said on a call with reporters. "Right now we are doing everything we can to balance the needs and desires of people to get back to work, back to shopping, back to life, and the needs to resist this virus.”
Santarsiero said Bucks County should be permitted to move to the “yellow” stage no later than June 4, when the governor’s stay-at-home order is set to expire. Local Democratic officials in Bucks and Delaware Counties have suggested the administration’s criteria for reaching the yellow phase were too onerous, and Santarsiero said it “probably does need to be reexamined.”
“The governor knows we have been with him,” Santarsiero said of Democrats in the General Assembly. “We have supported what he and [Health Secretary Rachel] Levine have been trying to do, what has resulted in saving lives. I thank him for that. But I think we’re at a point now where there are reasonable steps that can be taken which are consistent with those goals.”
For their part, Bucks County Republican lawmakers introduced legislation Wednesday to authorize county officials to set their own criteria for reopening businesses. Rep. Frank Farry called the state’s plan “arbitrary and illogical.”
Republicans, who control both houses of the legislature, swiftly seized on the Democratic dissension.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, a Centre County Republican, knocked Wolf Tuesday for vetoing GOP-backed legislation, accusing him of using the legislature “like an unofficial advisory board.”
State Rep. Marcey Toepel, a Montgomery County Republican, followed Wednesday with a demand on behalf of herself and 13 GOP colleagues in the southeast for Wolf to allow curbside pickup for all retailers, similar to what Democrats in the region were requesting.
Toepel said it was unfair that state-run liquor stores are permitting curbside pick-up “when mom-and-pop stores are on the verge of never opening their doors again.”