HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday vetoed legislation that would have allowed more Pennsylvania businesses to reopen over the objections of the state’s top health official, hours after hundreds gathered at the Capitol to protest the coronavirus-driven closures.
The measure was approved in the General Assembly along party lines, with Democrats saying the bill was premature and unsafe, as the state lacks sufficient testing for COVID-19 and personal protective equipment for health-care workers. Republicans, meanwhile, claimed more businesses could reopen safely if they adhered to federal standards for social distancing and infection prevention.
In March, Wolf ordered all but “life-sustaining” businesses to close their physical operations. While public health experts say such closures are necessary to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, they’ve also hit the economy hard. As of Monday, 1.5 million Pennsylvanians had filed for unemployment benefits.
The legislation would have redefined essential businesses and provided a road map for employers to reopen as long as they took certain safety precautions as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. GOP lawmakers do not have enough votes to override Wolf’s veto.
“This is not an easy decision, but it is the right course for Pennsylvania,” Wolf said in his veto message. “Reopening tens of thousands of businesses too early will only increase the spread of the virus, place more lives at risk, increase the death tolls, and extend the length of the economic hardships created by the pandemic.”
One of the speakers at the protest, state Rep. Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon), said Wolf could help the economy and “turn this all around today” by rescinding or modifying the orders.
“You could sign Senate Bill 613 into law right now, so every business and employer has a chance to comply with social distancing, elevated hygiene, and disinfection protocols — just like the ones you’ve put in place for so-called life-sustaining businesses,” Diamond said at the protest.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) and Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) condemned the governor’s veto in a joint statement Monday.
“It is disappointing that Governor Wolf rejected this common-sense approach that provided a path forward, while at the same time protected the lives of vulnerable Pennsylvanians without sacrificing the livelihoods of more than a million workers," the lawmakers said in a statement. “[I]t is very troubling that he vetoed a proposal to create a public mitigation plan that would have allowed employers to operate safely during the current emergency declaration.”
Though there is no longer an exponential growth in coronavirus cases, Wolf said in his veto message the state must reopen in a measured and staggered approach.
“This approach needs to include not only a decline in the spread of the virus, but also an integrated approach for how and when to open businesses and what additional measures are needed to ensure our businesses are safe and our health-care system can support us,” he said.