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Wolf: State police will enforce shutdown of non-life-sustaining businesses

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

On Friday, Republicans skewered Gov. Tom Wolf's order that all "non-life-sustaining" businesses close their physical location, saying the move threatened the state's economy and posed constitutional questions. 

And it didn't take long for Wolf to amend his order amid the mounting pressure, which also came from businesses and lawsuits.

The wave of criticism came a day after Wolf, a Democrat, significantly expanded his initial orders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, ordering all businesses that don't keep Pennsylvanians alive to close their physical locations immediately.

Starting Monday, the state will start enforcing the shutdown of non-life-sustaining businesses, Wolf said in a news conference Sunday.

State police, in collaboration with local agencies, will "go in and remind" all non-life-sustaining businesses that they must temporarily close down. Citations will be issued if necessary, Wolf said. 

Though the constitutionality of such decisions has been questioned, Wolf said the Constitution gives state governors the power to act in "extraordinary" situations such as the coronavirus outbreak.

"I would argue just from a common sense practical point of view, we're in a really dire situation here, and our democracy needs to have the ability to respond to it," Wolf said Sunday.

Flustered Republicans weren't launching personal attacks at Wolf, they said. But the sudden order created mass hysteria among business owners in their districts.

Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, said businesses "are in chaos" after wolf ordered all non-life-sustaining businesses to close on Thursday evening.

Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, could only speak briefly Friday because "businesses are in chaos."

"We need clarity, not confusion," Phillips-Hill said. "These things have to be thought out before the governor does this. Otherwise, confusion leads to chaos."

More:Wolf orders all 'non-life-sustaining' businesses in state to close 'physical locations'

More:Number of COVID-19 cases rises to double digits in York County

More:Information on coronavirus and COVID-19 from the CDC

The order and the backlash that ensued followed the state announcing a spike in COVID-19 cases totaling 268 on Friday, with cases in York County growing to six.

By Sunday, that statewide total had grown to 479 cases, with 10 confirmed cases in York County. 

Wolf over the weekend announced enforcement of his shutdown order would be delayed until Monday. 

Life-sustaining businesses exempted under Thursday's order include hospitals; pharmacies; food production; farming; the postal service; gas stations; and grocery stores. 

Bars and restaurants will still be able to offer delivery and takeout.

Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania speaks at a new conference at Pennsylvania Emergency Management Headquarters where he said he was ordering schools and other facilities to close in a suburban Philadelphia county, Montgomery County, that has been hard-hit by the COVID-19, Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

"The amount of supply chain issues and other issues that we are trying to deal with is beyond belief," Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, said. "The  supply chain for all these industries is completely shut down. It's crazy."

On Friday evening, Wolf rolled back his order for some businesses as lawsuits began to mount to keep businesses open in response to the widespread restrictions.

Those lawsuits included a Harrisburg-based law firm fighting to stay open and another law firm representing itself, a gun shop and a would-be gun buyer in Bucks County arguing he could not purchase a firearm because stores had closed, reported The Associated Press.

A sign on the door of Heidleberg United Church of Christ on W. Philadelphia Street provides guidelines for visitors due to the pandemic, Thursday, March 19, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Wolf in response amended the order, allowing accountants, those who prepare taxes, manufacturing supply companies and some law offices to stay open for business.

Both Phillips-Hill and Grove have said their offices have been inundated with calls from frenzied business owners trying to grasp what their future will be.

That even extends to contractors that handle payrolls at hospitals, who, without work, can't ensure workers are paid — creating fears employees won't come to work, Grove said.

"Taking a pause, taking a deep breath, analyzing the data, and maybe coming back next week with more clarification and a longer time frame — so everybody is at ease — would be a good thing," Grove said.

Businesses out of compliance with the new order "will forfeit their ability to receive any applicable disaster relief and/or may be subject to other appropriate administrative action," the governor's release states. 

The state may also terminate state loan or grant funding for businesses that violate the order.

Wolf's administration has maintained that the decision was constitutional, given that the state's Emergency Management Services Code grants him "extraordinary" powers upon a declaration of a disaster emergency.

"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," Wolf's office cited in a news release.

Still, Republicans have said they will challenge that assertion and research whether the governor actually possesses the power to shutter the state. 

“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," read a Thursday night news release from the state House GOP Caucus.

Foot traffic is almost non-existent in downtown York as the Governor orders the closure of all non-life-essential businesses. Thursday, March 19, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Even before Wolf's order, which experts anticipated could throttle businesses of all sizes, announcements of closures began to flow. 

In York City, for example, Left Bank Restaurant & Bar closed its doors for 12-24 weeks.

On a larger scale, Harley-Davidson, a corporation vital to the county's economy, closed three facilities operated by the motorcycle giant. That included the assembly plant in Springettsbury Township.

A representative for the local chapter of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the union representing the York County Harley-Davidson employees, said 1,240 of its members would be temporarily out of work.

Tina Locurto contributed to this report.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.