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Gov. Wolf threatens action against Pennsylvania counties, businesses that ignore lockdown restrictions

Gov. Wolf (Governor Tom Wolf/Released)

Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday had strong words for politicians and business owners who choose to defy the state’s coronavirus restrictions, threatening funding and business licenses as some counties move to the yellow phase of reopening while others remain in the most restrictive phase.

Wolf said funding to help counties in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic — which he likened to a war that some are deserting — will be used to support those that are following the orders meant to stop the spread of covid-19.

Funding from the federal CARES Act that is designated for certain places and health care facilities will still go there, he said, but discretionary funds will go to areas that follow the state’s restrictions.

“We can’t afford to have people desert, and so the reward for desertion cannot be that you’re just like everybody else and you get the discretionary funding,” Wolf said. “Discretionary funding will go to those places that are doing everything they ought to do to keep their citizens safe.”

He called politicians who are urging business owners to flout restrictions “selfish and unsafe.” He told business owners that politicians are putting them at risk.

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“These politicians put you at risk of losing your health department certification,” he said. “They put you business owners at risk of losing your liquor license. They put you at risk of losing your certificate of occupancy.”

He said the decision to open a business ahead of eased restrictions is “not only morally wrong, but it’s also really bad business.”

Business owners who go against restrictions also will risk their liability coverage. State Insurance Commissioner Jessica Altman said in a statement that many policies exclude coverage of businesses or people engaging in illegal acts or conduct.

Employees of businesses that open before they are permitted will receive protections, Wolf said. They can choose not to return out of concern for personal safety and continue receiving unemployment benefits.

Officials and lawmakers in numerous counties left off Friday’s list of the next group moving to the yellow phase blasted the governor for his decision, and some encouraged their businesses and residents to move to the next phase on their own.

Armstrong County District Attorney Katie Charlton said in a statement that even though Armstrong County is moving to the yellow phase, she thinks data “does not support an executive order mandating certain businesses to remain closed.”

She said she has advised police in the county not to cite those who do not follow yellow-phase restrictions.

Commissioners in Beaver County, the only Southwestern county not set to move to yellow Friday, likened Wolf’s decision to “economic punishment.” District Attorney David Lozier said his office would not prosecute any business owners who choose to reopen while the county remains in the red phase.

Lozier said on Monday that he was standing by his March guidance to police that the life-sustaining business order was not enforceable. He said he also supports the commissioners’ calls for the county to move into the yellow phase.

“Half the people in Beaver County work outside the county,” he said. “Drawing the circle around Beaver County isn’t going to solve the issue.”

David Russo, the district attorney in Greene County that is set to move to yellow Friday, said in a statement on Facebook that he will not prosecute businesses that open before Friday. He noted that he has no control over civil penalties levied by the state.

More than two dozen legislators Monday signed an open letter to district attorneys statewide urging them to “publicly refuse to enforce (Wolf’s) unconstitutional and overreaching covid-19 dictates.”

The letter asked district attorneys for commitments they would intervene on any citations issued under Wolf’s restrictions, including citations based on the business closures and stay-at-home orders.

Twenty-four counties moved to the yellow phase Friday, and 13 more will do so May 15. The yellow phase reopens retail establishments under certain guidelines. Restaurants must remain take-out and delivery only, and gyms, spas, casinos and theaters will remain closed.

“The governor has unilaterally made arbitrary and capricious decisions about which members of our workforce he will permit the dignity of continuing to earn a living to support their families,” the letter read, calling Wolf’s encouragement of residents to report noncompliant businesses “an Orwellian nightmare.”

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© 2020 The Tribune-Review