HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Two days after Gov. Tom Wolf lambasted them as “cowardly” and vowed to withhold funding, several Pennsylvania counties signaled Wednesday they are moving ahead with plans to defy him by lifting some pandemic restrictions. Others backed down under the governor’s threat.
Commissioners in many GOP-controlled counties where the Democratic governor has yet to ease any restrictions say they can manage the public health impacts of COVID-19 and reopen safely. They say the shutdown threatens to destroy local economies — especially small businesses — the longer it goes.
“Come this Friday, we plan on opening because we’ve been getting hundreds of emails, text messages and phone calls that these business owners are on the brink of closing down,” Daniel Camp III, the Republican chairman of the Beaver County Board of Commissioners, told a state Senate hearing Wednesday.
Beaver County, home to a severe nursing home outbreak, said it plans to operate as if Wolf had already eased restrictions there, meaning residents can freely leave their homes and retailers, offices and other kinds of businesses can reopen. Because of the outbreak, Beaver is the lone western Pennsylvania county that remains locked down.
Columbia County, meanwhile, voted Wednesday to join Beaver and other counties that plan to lift Wolf's stay-at-home orders and allow nonessential businesses to reopen Friday without his blessing. Columbia said its coronavirus numbers have been inflated by reporting irregularities, and accused the governor's office of failing to communicate why it hasn't been allowed to emerge from some pandemic restrictions.
But Columbia's resolution also warned businesses reopening in defiance of the state shutdown that they do so at their own peril, noting the county “cannot protect county businesses and individuals” from state retaliation. Wolf has said that businesses that open without his permission jeopardize professional and business licenses, certificates of occupancy and insurance policies.
“We didn’t want to do what we did today," said Columbia County Commissioner David Kovach, a Democrat who joined the board’s Republican majority. “But we felt we needed to make a statement."
Counties that still plan to lift restrictions despite Wolf's threat to withhold billions in COVID-19 funding also include Lebanon and Lancaster, the state’s seventh-most populous.
But county officials elsewhere — including Schuylkill County and Dauphin County, home of the state capital — took heed and backed down, even as they continued to press Wolf for a more ambitious reopening timetable.
“For us to threaten and then execute a ‘Hey everyone go back to green in Berks County,’ we will suffer the consequences,” said Berks County Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt, a Democrat, referring to Wolf's color-coded reopening plan. “And I don’t want to be the one saying that, gee, I held up the money, or we were denied money ... because of a foolish decision.”
George F. Halcovage Jr., Republican chair of the Schuylkill County board, said the governor took a more conciliatory tone in a conference call with county commissioners.
“That phone call, hearing the governor say, ‘We need to collaborate and cooperate with county commissioners,’ that was extremely important,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve heard that said.”
A message was left with Wolf's office late Wednesday seeking comment.
The governor’s earlier warning to counties came amid increasing pressure from Republican lawmakers who want him to lift his pandemic restrictions more quickly in additional areas of Pennsylvania. Wolf has said that moving too fast risks jeopardizing the progress Pennsylvania has made against a virus that has sickened some 59,000 and killed nearly 4,000 statewide.
In Berks County, commissioners on Wednesday said they couldn’t in good conscience advise businesses to reopen in defiance of Wolf, given the risk.
But at a video news conference at which they invited several struggling small business owners to speak, the board called on Wolf to take action immediately to allow Berks to reopen, saying it can do so safely.
Big-box retailers that have been deemed essential and allowed to operate during the pandemic are steadily putting locally owned competitors out of business, they said.
“Governor Wolf, we are are begging you to reconsider what you are doing to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and to Berks County," said Christian Leinbach, GOP chair of the Berks County board. “Do you really believe a small flower shop is less safe than thousands of people flocking Walmart and Lowe’s for their Mother's Day flowers?”
In other coronavirus-related developments:
The Pennsylvania Department of Health on Wednesday reported 137 additional coronavirus deaths, raising the statewide total to 3,943.
The deaths occurred over the past several weeks. The Health Department has been reconciling its records with data provided by hospitals, health systems, municipal health departments and nursing homes.
Over two-thirds of the state's virus deaths have occurred among residents of nursing homes and similar institutions.
Health officials reported 707 new infections, bringing the statewide total to nearly 59,000.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher than the state’s confirmed case count because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick. There is no data on how many people have fully recovered.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
Pennsylvania schools will get $524 million in federal funding to help them respond to the virus, the governor’s office said Wednesday.
The U.S. Department of Education approved Pennsylvania’s application for the one-time emergency allocation, which was part of the federal coronavirus relief law signed by President Donald Trump in late March.
Schools may use the funding for a wide range of purposes, including food service, professional training, technology purchases, sanitization and cleaning supplies, summer and after-school programs and mental health supports, the governor’s office said.