In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf issued a statewide stay-at-home order April 1. Most counties will remain under that order until June 4. Some counties are moving this month into the “yellow” phase of the Wolf administration’s plan to reopen Pennsylvania in stages. A group of Republican Lancaster County elected officials took steps this week to move the county into the yellow phase, effective today, in defiance of Wolf.
Gov. Tom Wolf has been an imperfect leader during a health crisis that is unprecedented in modern times.
We would not expect that any elected official, at any level of government, would have a perfect batting average during this treacherous and still-unfolding pandemic.
Yet our elected leaders, especially those in the highest offices, must always be questioned regarding their actions. We should expect accountability and transparency at all times. With that in mind, below are some questions for Wolf. Some haven’t yet been answered at all. Others have received insufficient explanations. The public deserves full answers to all of them.
1. In March, you closed businesses that were not deemed to be “life-sustaining.” Thousands of businesses received waivers from the state Department of Community and Economic Development to remain open. But many owners and observers say the process was slow, arbitrary and cloaked in secrecy. Why hasn’t there been more transparency surrounding this process?
2. What specific criteria were used in considering waiver applications?
3. Why were some waivers granted and subsequently revoked?
4. Why was a waiver for the cabinet supply company your family once owned revoked following questions raised in reporting by Spotlight PA?
5. “Just hours before the administration disclosed the first details about which businesses received waivers, state officials were still revoking exemptions without explanation,” Spotlight PA reported May 13. Could you provide an explanation for those revoked exemptions?
6. As state Sen. Scott Martin, R-Martic Township, tweeted May 8 in regards to the last-minute revoking: “Was this a last second attempt to clean up the list?”
7. The secretive nature of waiver applications seems to fly in the face of the transparency you tout as a hallmark of your administration. With no reasoning made public as to why applications were approved or denied, the process appears arbitrary or biased. On what basis can we trust the process was as fair as possible?
8. The editorial board fully agrees with the importance of your ongoing stay-at-home order. But residents are becoming understandably more anxious with each passing week. We seek more clarity on how your administration is determining how and when counties move into the “yellow” and then “green” phases of reopening business and society. Even understanding that the situation is fluid, can you be more specific about the science and other key factors used to make decisions?
9. The rate of new cases — 50 or fewer per 100,000 in two weeks — is often cited as a key metric to reopening, but you and Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine repeatedly have mentioned other considerations are at play. Republican lawmakers have cited the number of open hospital beds as a consideration. Could you provide a more precise list of other considerations for opening, such as hospital capacity and contact tracing programs? Are there any quantitative standards in place for these additional considerations, such as number of beds per population or capacity for tracing per population?
10. Who was consulted in setting the standards — such as the rate of new cases — for moving to the “yellow” phase? Are these standards based off federal or international guidelines or research?
11. Lancaster is not the only county in which nursing home residents account for an overwhelming majority of COVID-19 deaths. How should that be factored, if at all, in determining reopening timetables?
12. Speaking of nursing homes, a recent Spotlight PA story explained how Pennsylvania had a “robust and aggressive” plan to protect its nursing homes. However, the plan — which circulated around the state Department of Health in mid-March — was never implemented, Spotlight PA reported. And it wasn’t until mid-April that a far more limited response was activated. Why wasn’t the March plan fully implemented?
13. Along those lines, is there regret that there might have been misjudgments regarding response priorities at the beginning of the crisis and, if so, how has the administration learned from them?
14. Could the Pennsylvania National Guard, for example, have been deployed to assist more nursing homes?
15. In Tuesday’s editorial, we had serious questions for the 13 Republican elected officials who planned to facilitate the early move of Lancaster County into the “yellow” phase — in part by testing all residents and staff at the county’s 32 nursing homes for COVID-19. But that same day, your administration abruptly unveiled a statewide plan for universal testing of staff and residents at long-term care facilities. Why this sudden change of approach?
16. And if it’s so crucial to do this testing, why didn’t it happen weeks ago?
17. Your administration previously asserted universal testing might not be realistic or necessarily helpful, given both the lack of testing supplies and questions about the accuracy of various COVID-19 tests. How are you overcoming a shortage of supplies and safeguarding against test inaccuracies under this new mandate?
18. We transfer to you this related set of questions, which we also asked of the Republicans on Tuesday: “We are very pro-testing, but we must ask: What type of test will be used in nursing homes? Will it be the type that requires that a swab be inserted deep into the nasal cavity? If it is, is it fair to subject asymptomatic elderly individuals to such a painful procedure?”
Finally, some repeat questions on issues we have raised frequently in editorials.
19. Why was the state’s office for unemployment claims so woefully underprepared to handle the deluge of claims? And why was this crucial problem seemingly not addressed with sufficient emergency resources and staffing as soon as it became apparent?
20. The Lancaster County coroner’s death toll from COVID-19 has disagreed with the state total since March. Why has the state had such difficulty compiling timely and accurate COVID-19 statistics from each county?
21. Why haven’t you resolved the ongoing disparities between state and local COVID-19 statistics?
22. And why has it been so difficult to get useful and specific demographic data from the state about COVID-19 cases and deaths?
Those are our questions.
We believe the decision by Republican officials to partially reopen Lancaster County today in defiance of state guidelines is premature and potentially harmful to the public health. We understand that it’s rooted in very real frustrations with the Wolf administration’s missteps and lack of transparency on the aforementioned issues. Lives and businesses have been upended, paychecks have halted, and a growing mistrust of Harrisburg is exacerbating this crisis. But there's a right way of doing things, and reopening without state approval is not it.
With that in mind, we, and the public, eagerly await the Wolf administration’s answers.