Wolf orders shutdown of all ‘non life-sustaining’ businesses

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

Gov. Tom Wolf

The lockdown to fight COVID-19 is getting teeth this weekend.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced Thursday that the state would enforce the closure of all “non-life sustaining” businesses in the Commonwealth, effective, Saturday.

“To protect the health and safety of all Pennsylvanians, we need to take more aggressive mitigation actions,” said Gov. Wolf. “This virus is an invisible danger that could be present everywhere. We need to act with the strength we use against any other severe threat. And, we need to act now before the illness spreads more widely.”

Food, convenience stores, pharmacies, hardware stores, medical offices are among those allowed to remain open. A complete list of which businesses are allowed to remain open can be found at https://www.governor.pa.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/20200319-Life-Sustaining-Business.pdf.

The Wolf Administration is citing the Emergency Management Services Code to give him the power to do this, arguing that the governor is granted extraordinary powers upon his declaration of a disaster emergency, such as COVID-19:  Among these powers, the governor may control the ingress and egress into the disaster area, the movement of persons, and the occupancy of premises within the disaster area, which has been established to be the entire commonwealth for the COVID-19 disaster emergency. The secretary of health separately is authorized under the law to employ measures necessary for the prevention and suppression of disease.

The governor has directed the following state agencies and local officials to enforce the closure orders to the full extent of the law:

  • Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board
  • Department of Health
  • Department of Agriculture
  • Pennsylvania State Police
  • Local officials, using their resources to enforce closure orders within their jurisdictions

The Wolf Administration said Thursday that businesses failing to comply will forfeit their ability to receive disaster relief and could receive other sanctions up to and including criminal charges.

State House Republicans immediately questioned whether Wolf has the authority for such sweeping measures.

“The Wolf Administration set off a panic tonight throughout the Commonwealth with its edict to shut down employers,” House Republican Leadership said in a statement, Thursday. “The ill-prepared actions, announced after normal business hours, are not only an economic blow to every worker in the state right now but will have ramifications long into the future.

“Any announcement in an emergency event such as this calls for clear and efficient lines of communication, but the open-ended and short-noticed announcement today is the complete opposite and only adds to the sense of chaos many Pennsylvanians are struggling with tonight.

“These actions will shut down many small, family-owned shops and businesses, not only for the duration of this event, but possibly, and probably, forever.

“The sprawling and confusing list provided by the governor is provided with no explanation, and we will explore all avenues available to us to determine whether the action he’s taken is allowed within our state Constitution.

“It is incumbent upon all state leaders to recognize that long after we have defeated this public health threat, we must have the ability to create economic opportunities for all Pennsylvanians.

“Therefore, we are compelled to raise our voice on behalf of millions of hard-working Pennsylvanians who are already making enormous sacrifices in the face of this worldwide event, none of which was of their own choosing.”

Business owners also reacted with concern. The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) questioned the timing of the move.

“We understand that there are necessary precautions that must be taken to protect life, but no other governor, even in states with many more cases and wider community spread, has taken this extreme action,” said Gordon Denlinger, state director of NFIB in Pennsylvania. “We want to know the basis for Gov. Wolf’s decision and whether it is justified by specific CDC directives. That’s because the economic impact on businesses and their employees will be massive, and they are much less likely to ever recover.”

“There are over a million small businesses in Pennsylvania employing 2.5 million people who are impacted by the Governor’s decision,” added Denlinger. “We must be concerned for public health, but Governor Wolf must help these small business owners understand the reasoning behind his decision—and why he announced they should shut down within three hours of his order.”

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