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Lancaster County business owners, lawmakers' frustrations with Pa. COVID-19 response boil over onto Tuesday's ballot

Scott Bowser

Scott Bowser poses outside at Mt. Hope Estate & Winery Wednesday, May 12, 2021.

Phil Weaver shut the doors to Lancaster County’s biggest restaurant on March 16, 2020, complying with an order issued by Gov. Tom Wolf to close all indoor dining establishments and bars in the hopes of curtailing a dangerous virus.

That day, Weaver said, was one of the first times he realized COVID-19 posed a serious threat. And while the governor’s initial order presented a significant hit to his business, it was only supposed to last two weeks -- all it would take to “flatten the curve” of virus infections.

Two weeks turned into two more weeks. Then it was a color-coded guideline for when counties could begin to reopen. All the while, Weaver’s buffet-style restaurant, Shady Maple Smorgasbord in East Earl, remained closed for indoor dining and offered limited takeout options.

The year COVID-19 shut down much of the nation’s economy coincided with Shady Maple’s 35th anniversary in business. What should have been a year-long celebration for the popular restaurant and tourist destination turned instead into a complete rethink of its operations. 

How can you run a buffet in a world where touching shared objects, or even breathing the same air, could potentially expose you or others to a deadly viral disease? Answering those questions took time. Shady Maple sat closed for nearly five months before it reopened for limited service.

“It’s basically like restarting all over again and trying to figure out a whole new business,” Weaver said.

Shady Maple "touch-less" buffet

FILE: Customers walk down the buffet at Shady Maple Smorgasbord on Friday, July 31, 2020. The buffet has sanitizing stations and make all customers wear masks the entire time they're up from their seat, along with asking customers to social distance and use gloves while at the buffet.

Making those changes was the least frustrating part of 2020 for Weaver. Far worse, he said, was the silence or indifference with which Wolf’s administration responded to business leaders’ pleas for more communication and collaboration.

For business leaders across the state, a perception that COVID-19 rules were arbitrarily issued and enforced fostered the political movement to limit the emergency powers entrusted to Pennsylvania’s chief executive. Two constitutional amendments on Tuesday’s primary ballot would, Weaver and other supporters say, force the governor to collaborate with the Legislature on managing emergencies in the future. 

But for Wolf, these amendments would do nothing but hurt the state’s ability to respond to future emergencies, he said in an interview with LNP | LancasterOnline. 

“We’re all frustrated by the pandemic. This virus really hurt our lives and our businesses,” Wolf said. “The problem is changing the rules isn’t going to change the fact the virus really did bad things to our families and our businesses… I’m not sure you can make a bad situation any better by just changing the rules and hoping that is going to make things better magically.”

Waiver woes

The initial jolt that set the amendment ball rolling was the Wolf administration’s handling of waivers for “essential” businesses, allowing them to skirt pandemic lockdown orders so long as steps were taken to protect employees from the virus.

The state government revealed little about how waivers were reviewed when the program ramped up in April, and the range of businesses that received one suggested the criteria was being applied haphazardly, if at all. 

“We would get [constituent] questions because no one, as in the executive agency that is solely responsible, was answering,” said Bryan Cutler, the Peach Bottom Republican who is Speaker of the state House of Representatives. “Nobody was in the Department of Labor to answer questions; there was nobody to explain the waiver process and why one furniture maker got one but another didn’t, why greenhouses couldn’t open but Walmart could.”

By mid-April, protests under the “ReOpen PA” banner began in Harrisburg, led by some business owners and conservative legislators who argued the COVID-19 threat had to be weighed against the hardship that lockdowns were causing.

“It would have been rough no matter who was in charge, but I think if there was more transparency, it would have been easier to get with the program,” said Scott Bowser, the owner of Mount Hope Estate & Winery and the Pennsylvania Renaissance Fair, who estimates his businesses lost more than $5 million during the shutdown. 

When he called his legislators with questions, he said he was stunned by what he heard.

“When you’re trying to call your representatives and they give you answers like, ‘I don’t know, we’re not included,’ that’s troublesome to me. I would have much rather there been joint task forces that worked together on a bipartisan basis as they did in the campaign to vaccinate,” Bowser said.

For Sight and Sound CEO Matt Neff, the lack of collaboration was the most frustrating part. His team had already reopened by early June at Sight and Sound’s theater in Branson, Missouri — but remained closed until the end of July in Lancaster. By then, the Sight and Sound staff was already well-versed in what worked to minimize contact among patrons, thanks to the flexibility of local government in Missouri leading the mitigation efforts.

Sight and Sound leadership

FILE: Josh Enck, left, and Matt Neff sit in the theater at Sight & Sound.

“There’s a lot of things at stake, people’s lives and livelihoods. It doesn’t have to be an ‘either-or,’” Neff said.

The Lancaster Chamber is urging its members to cast a “Yes” vote on these amendments -- though it acknowledges that many of the COVID-19 orders that impacted businesses fell under the purview of the Secretary of Health and not the governor, according to a May 7 email sent to its membership.

From bad to worse

Despite the angry protests led by some legislators, Pennsylvania’s House and Senate were willing to cooperate on a pandemic response, according to Cutler. Pennsylvania, he noted, was the first state in the country to allow legislators to cast votes remotely. Legislators freed up dollars for emergency response and changed school laws to accommodate the year’s unusual circumstances -- steps taken in collaboration with Wolf and his administration.

But the Republican-controlled Legislature’s relationship with Wolf soured quickly. As cases and deaths declined after the virus’s first wave, economic restrictions remained in place. Legislators and local officials asked on a daily basis for a seat at the table, or answers to basic questions like what data Wolf was using to guide his plan for reopening the economy.

Wolf, however, said he was always communicating with lawmakers, noting that every member of leadership has him on speed dial. The problem was not a lack of collaboration, Wolf said. There was a fundamental disagreement between Republican leaders and Wolf on how to handle the pandemic.

“It’s the nature of an emergency,” Wolf said. “You need to act and you’re not going to make everybody happy, but the goal is keep people safe as we possibly could, and I think we did that.”

Businesses and Republican legislators said at the time that Wolf wasn’t explaining the science driving his restrictions. They pointed to different metrics used in other states, and argued that the fact hospitals were not overwhelmed with cases was reason enough to lift some or all restrictions on businesses.

Wolf insisted the public health measures were based on the best advice available from medical experts. For example, the governor stressed one metric -- fewer than 50 new COVID-19 cases per day per 100,000 residents for 14 days -- as a threshold for lifting some restrictions at the county level. 

“We weren’t even sure how the virus spread at first,” Wolf said. “At first we were watching surfaces, then scientists realized it spread through aerosol transmission...  I’m not sure how you create a hard and fast rule for anything like this.”

By May, some lawmakers and county officials -- Lancaster included -- said they would unilaterally begin lifting pandemic restrictions. On May 28, frustrations built to a breaking point, as the Legislature voted to end Wolf’s emergency declaration, with some Democrats supporting the move. This effort ultimately failed, with the state Supreme Court saying Wolf had the power to veto the Legislature’s resolution. A subsequent veto override attempt failed.

The Lancaster lawmakers who hold leadership positions in the state Legislature say it’s for these reasons they moved forward to amend the state constitution.

The intent of the two amendments on Tuesday’s ballot is to force governors to “make the case” for their emergency orders, according to Sen. Scott Martin, R-Martic Township, who sponsored the amendments.

“You’ve got to show what you’re doing is working, you’re communicating with us, and we’re not finding out about this when the press release comes out,” Martin said.

Martin said he doesn’t believe the constitutional amendments to limit the governor’s emergency powers would be on the ballot if Wolf had worked with the Legislature from the beginning -- though Martin still believes the emergency management laws were in need of updating no matter what.

“This is something -- though it was a once-in-a-lifetime type of emergency -- our laws weren’t really geared toward it,” Martin said. “Because no one could assume that it could go on this long, and now we know there is a better, more collaborative way to deal with it.”

Cutler noted the success of Wolf’s legislative vaccination task force (of which Lancaster Republican Sen. Ryan Aument is a member), saying it is exactly the sort of collaboration he’d been asking the administration for since the beginning of the pandemic.

Democratic legislators are standing with Wolf. Rep. Mike Sturla, the county’s lone Democrat in the Legislature, said the amendments would create two levels of legislative power.

“It would be easier to override a governor in the midst of a pandemic, than to override a veto for a bridge naming,” Sturla said, noting that both questions on the ballot lets a simple majority of the legislature overturn a governor’s emergency power vs. the two-thirds majority needed to override a gubernatorial veto.

Wolf echoed this, contending that if he was really acting inappropriately, the Legislative branch would have used its constitutionally allowed process of a veto override.

“If you want to make the rules easier so you don’t have to reach 67% [for an override], then you strike right at the heart of the balance of powers that the American constitution, the Pennsylvania constitution we’ve been working with for generations,” Wolf said.

Regardless of whether these amendments pass on Tuesday, the state Secretary of Health will be able to close businesses, limit occupancy and make masking orders under the state’s disease control laws. When asked whether this made the amendments toothless, Cutler’s office deflected, saying the intent was always to ensure he collaborated with the Legislature in future disasters.

What if...

As bad as the pandemic was -- more than 26,000 deaths in Pennsylvania so far -- public health experts predict the state would have suffered many more cases and deaths if the governor had dialed back his public health orders.

“Weighing the social and economic consequences of lockdowns and mandatory mitigation steps is always a prime consideration, and one of the most difficult to weigh in making public-health decisions,” wrote Dr. Joseph Kontra, who leads the Infectious Diseases department at PennMedicine Lancaster General Health, in an email. “It must be remembered, though, that the social and economic consequences of an uncontrolled epidemic of a potentially fatal disease can be far more devastating.”

But in all this, business owners still believe they got the raw end of the deal.

Tait Bar Block

FILE: Mick Owens, left, owner of Mick's All American Pubs and Maize Mexican Cantina, stands behind a BarBlock, which was finalized by Jim Shumway, a senior project manager at Tait on May 29, 2020. 

Mick Owens, owner of Mick's All American Pub and Co-Chair of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association’s Alcohol Service Committee, was sympathetic that Wolf had a “tough job in front of him” at the beginning of the pandemic. But he said he found it frustrating that Wolf seemingly only made his decisions based on input from the medical community, and did not consider other impacts like mental health and the economy.

“Our county isn’t meant to be run by just one person,” he said. “One man does have to make that quick decision, but after 21 days it is no longer an emergency, it's an ongoing problem and all of our elected officials should be involved.”

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