(The Center Square) – Republicans on Pennsylvania’s House State Government Committee moved bills Monday modifying Gov. Tom Wolf’s controversial shutdown order for nonessential businesses.
House Bills 2376 and 2400 would reopen certain retail operations and construction sites so long as workers could maintain social distancing guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Republican committee members said the proposals bring equity and fairness to an unimaginable economic storm that’s left more than 1 million residents unemployed and thousands of business unsure when – or if – they’ll reopen.
Democrats, however, warned the proposals endanger lives and are too much, too soon.
“This represents really a departure from the statewide, nationwide and worldwide response to the pandemic,” said Rep. Kevin Doyle, D-Philadelphia. “If we do go down this route of ending the shutdown, we are going to make national news for all the wrong reasons.”
The Department of Health reported 1,470 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, bringing the statewide total to 12,980. Some 162 residents have died since the first reported case on March 6, Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said, and more than 1,100 remain hospitalized.
Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford, sponsored HB 2376 with the intention of offering more protection for consumers who are currently forced to patronize big box stores filled with other shoppers, making social distancing complicated and, in some cases, impossible. The legislation would allow stores staffed with one employee to operate so long as customers enter one at a time.
“My goal is to enhance social distancing by enabling Pennsylvanians to shop at smaller stores rather than large grocery chains or big box stores,” Roae said.
Wolf issued a statewide mandate effective March 23 that required all nonessential businesses to close in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. Grocery stores, pharmacies and hardware stores have been allowed to stay open.
“We have to save lives before we can save livelihoods,” Wolf has said of the decision. He’s resisted calls to reconsider the measure or narrow its scope, citing the importance of social distancing in taming the pandemic.
Legislative Republicans, meanwhile, have criticized the order as too broad and onerous. The governor’s subsequent waiver process introduced more confusion and uncertainty about what constitutes an essential business, lawmakers said.
The Department of Community and Economic Development said Monday it received nearly 44,000 waiver requests by the April 3 deadline. Some 16 percent have been approved, nearly 31 percent have been denied and more than a quarter were submitted for “activities that did not require a waiver,” spokesperson Dominique Lockett said. More than 11,000 applications are still pending as of Monday.
“There has to be a balance and this is a bill [HB 2376] that will search for a balance between safety and allowing the economy to not be totally crippled,” said Majority Chairman Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming.
Likewise, Republicans have questioned the administration’s logic for closing construction sites despite their ability to keep employees safe while still operating. House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, introduced HB 2400 to remedy the situation.
“Pennsylvania is the only state to shut down all active public and private construction sites, while issuing some selective waivers on an ad hoc basis,” he said. “There is no consistency.”
The bills passed through committee along party lines and move to the House floor for consideration as soon as Tuesday.