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Wolf admin: 'Too soon' to say whether Pa. would defy Trump order

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
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)

Gov. Tom Wolf's administration on Tuesday said it's "too soon" to say whether the Democrat would defy orders from President Donald Trump to reopen businesses, which Trump claimed he could do. 

The administration's response to the hypothetical scenario came a day after Trump said he had "total" authority to reopen economies nationwide that have been mangled by business closures and other COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

"It’s too soon to make a determination on that," said Wolf spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger. "Our highest priority remains protecting the health and safety of Pennsylvanians." 

More:Wolf, Cuomo, four other governors lay out plans to open Northeast economies

More:York County sees one additional virus-related death, 10 new COVID-19 cases

The president in recent weeks has called for the swift reopening of the battered economy, which has experienced record numbers of applications for unemployment benefits.

The calls have caused concern among health experts who fear that doing so would prolong the effects of the virus and leave more Americans in harm's way.

In addition, the president's claims that he, not governors, has the ability to open the economy has legal experts questioning the constitutional merit because of the separation of powers and 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"We don’t have a king in this country," said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on MSNBC. "We didn’t want a king. So we have a constitution, and we elect a president."

Cuomo said he would defy an order from Trump and challenge it in court. 

On Tuesday, Trump seemed to walk back his earlier comments, saying he would "authorize" governors to form their own plans. 

Democratic governors in the region, including Cuomo — who has overseen a state at the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic — have already begun to plan state responses to bring their respective economies back to life.

On Monday, Wolf and Cuomo, along with four other Democratic governors in the Northeast, announced they would work collaboratively to slowly reopen their respective economies by creating "working groups." Later Monday, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, also joined the group. 

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Beginning immediately, the states — which also include Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey and Delaware — will begin to form the groups composed of top health officials, economic development and chiefs of staff.

The governors did not include a target date for when economies in their states would start to reopen. 

Wolf also dismissed Trump's insistence that the president has the authority to mandate states to reopen businesses. If the governors had the authority to close down their states, they now have the responsibility to open them back up, Wolf said.

There had been 381 confirmed COVID-19 cases in York County as of noon Wednesday, with four total virus-related deaths.

Statewide, there had been 26,490 confirmed cases along with 647 deaths.

Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine has noted that statewide trends seem to indicate that cases are reaching a plateau, a sentiment echoed Monday by Cuomo in New York.

Still, the governors have said they plan to avoid pulling the trigger too soon, because doing so could put their populations at unnecessary risk amid a pandemic that has already been linked to the deaths of more than 26,000 nationwide.

Republicans in the state Legislature, however, have adamantly opposed Wolf's decision last month to shutter all non-life-sustaining businesses.

On Wednesday, the Senate approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Bob Mensch, R-Berks, along party lines that would force Gov. Tom Wolf to create a coronavirus mitigation plan for businesses, sending it to his desk.

If businesses were to comply with guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, they would be allowed to open under the bill.

The Senate also passed separate, amended legislation sponsored by Sen. David Argall, R-Berks, that would give counties the ability to create their own mitigation plans — allowing businesses to open if they were to comply with the same guidelines. 

That legislation needs a concurrence vote in the House before it reaches Wolf's desk.

The governor over the past few days has expressed concerns with both bills, but he has not committed to vetoes as of Wednesday evening.

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