Penalties are in place for businesses, counties defying Wolf reopen plan

Justin Henry//May 11, 2020

Penalties are in place for businesses, counties defying Wolf reopen plan

Justin Henry//May 11, 2020

Pennsylvania business owners could lose their state licensing credentials and eligibility for liability insurance if they do not comply with the governor’s mandated three-phase reopening process, according to a statement from Gov. Tom Wolf Monday.

A 13-county cluster in the state’s southwest region this Friday is set to join the 24 that moved from the red to the yellow phase last week, allowing their business communities to resume limited in-person operations. State health officials say a county is considered for this transition when it experiences less than 50 new confirmed cases per 100,000 people in a day, a threshold many counties around the commonwealth have met.

However, State Department of Health Secretary Rachel Levine told the State Senate last week that this requirement was “necessary but not sufficient,” and that there are other factors the health department will consider — availability of testing and transmission data, among them.

The governor’s phase-in plan to reopen the Pennsylvania economy is losing legitimacy among small businesses who say waiting for state authorities to grant them the green light could cost them their company.

“People are questioning the validity of the order,” said John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association (PRLA), in an interview Monday.

“There are some people who are going to lose their businesses,” he said, noting that many small business owners are having to dip into their mortgage to sustain their business through the ongoing recession. “When you get into situations like that, people are going to do what they can to survive.”

County officials in Lebanon, Dauphin, York, Cumberland and Perry counties issued statements saying they would not prosecute businesses for failing to comply with the Wolf administration’s three-phase, county-by-county reopening process.

“Enough is enough,” wrote Dauphin County Board Chairman Jeff Haste. “It is time to reopen the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and return our state to the people and not run it as a dictatorship.”

Lancaster County public officials penned a letter to Gov. Wolf that said they would move the county from “red” to “yellow” designation on May 15, which would allow companies to resume limited in-person operations, with or without the governor’s cooperation. The letter charged Wolf administration officials with failing to be transparent about why Lancaster County isn’t allowed to resume operations despite meeting state guidelines.

“We have consistently called for a data-driven, collaborative and transparent approach to getting through this crisis,” according to the letter, signed by County Commissioners Josh G. Parsons and Ray D’Agostino, Sheriff Chris Leppler and state lawmakers representing Lancaster. “In refusing to do so, you have lost the will of many people to continue on the extremely narrow path you have outlined.”

In his Monday briefing to the press, Wolf condemned efforts by public officials to speed up the process of reopening commerce, calling them “cowardly acts” that endanger the lives of Pennsylvanians by encouraging companies to resume in-person business functions before contact tracing and widespread testing are available.

“I cannot allow residents in a red county to get sick because their local officials can’t see the invisible risk of the virus in their community,” Wolf said Monday. “So, I must and I will impose consequences if a county locally lifts restrictions when it has not yet been given the go-ahead by the state.”

Wolf said non-compliant counties would not be eligible for federal stimulus discretionary funds, businesses would no longer be eligible for business liability insurance and restaurants that resume operations could lose their liquor license if they resume operations ahead of the Wolf administration’s authorization.

Longstreet said many businesses could lose business permits and liquor licenses if the state law enforcement authority trumps county law enforcement officials in disputes over violations to the state’s phase-in approach.

“I respect their [county officials’] authority, but their authority is at a different level than the state,” he said. “It’s about what the state wants to enforce for those who hold state permits.”

Business advocacy groups say they don’t urge any employer to violate the governor’s order, but they are preparing member businesses for some of the safety issues that confront a business attempting to reopen. David Black, president and CEO of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber, said he’s telling businesses to “use caution, be safe and check with your insurance carrier.”

PA Chamber President and CEO Gene Barr said his message to business owners is: “Whenever you open, wherever you open, you need to do it safely.

“We’d never encourage anyone to break the law,” he said. “There are some things businesses can be doing, to go along with the governor’s comment, to use common sense.”