When Lancaster County’s Republican state lawmakers spoke a week ago, they were fed up.
The seven House members and two senators had tried for weeks, without success, to get legislation across Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk that would reopen sectors of the state’s economy.
Wolf promised to veto each bill, including a measure sent to his desk on Thursday that would allow counties to implement their own reopening plans without Wolf’s approval.
The frustrated lawmakers agreed: Lancaster County’s officials – not Wolf – are best suited to make the decision on when to begin reopening. These officials receive data directly from hospitals, to inform their decisions.
But the lawmakers recognized they didn’t have authority over the county, so Sen. Ryan Aument (R., Landisville) contacted fellow Republican Josh Parsons. Parsons, a county commissioner, had heard rumblings that other counties were planning to go rogue and tell residents to open businesses as if they were a “yellow” county.
The discussions resulted in a letter drafted by Aument’s staff and signed by not only the Harrisburg delegation but the county’s representative in Congress, Republican U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, and the two GOP county commissioners, Parsons and Ray D’Agostino.
The letter to Wolf, made public on May 10, stated Lancaster County and its elected officials were prepared to begin reopening the local economy -- with or without Wolf’s blessing. The letter came as surprise to local business leaders, health care systems and Democrats, who were not consulted before the letter became public.
And since it became public on Sunday, the letter has sparked a contentious debate over the legal and health ramifications of reopening that boils down to a single question: Should we really be doing this?
LNP | LancasterOnline attempted to contact some of the decision-makers behind Lancaster’s Mother’s Day missive to Wolf, seeking to shed light on how lawmakers arrived at their weighty decision to defy a governor.
A spokesperson for House Majority Leader Rep. Bryan Cutler said lawmakers signed the letter “as a way to support” the commissioners. The lawmakers are now looking for a legislative fix to “back up district attorneys and commissioners that decide to go this route,” Cutler’s spokesperson, Mike Straub, said in an interview earlier this week.
State Rep. Dave Zimmerman (R., East Earl) said in a phone call Thursday he signed the letter because it was “the right thing to do.”
“We have people lining up at my door crying,” Zimmerman said. “They can’t pay rent. They can’t buy food. They’ve received no check from no government. We’re dealing with all that, and the hospitals have hardly any COVID-19 patients.”
“We have learned about who this virus targets and we have learned about the danger of the virus… We’re overstating the danger for the general population,” Smucker said in a call Monday. “At the same time the economic disaster, because businesses [are closed], is worse than the governor’s giving any amount of credit for.”
On the Senate side, Aument said Wednesday that lawmakers understood the “full weight” of the move.
“We understand this is an unprecedented decision,” said Aument, noting that he has worked closely with Wolf on a number of issues. “I don’t relish getting to this point. I have been calling for transparency, for collaboration to protect public health, and quite frankly frustration has just mounted for me.”
Parsons said the decision to send the letter was a collaboration between the commissioners and lawmakers. “We need a course out of this,” Parsons said Wednesday.
While Parsons and Aument both said they’d prefer to work with Wolf, they believe a local response is the best course out of the pandemic.
“I genuinely believe Lancaster County can implement a stronger plan,” Aument said. “It’s data-informed. If additional [outbreaks occur], we’ll be able to respond to that immediately.”