Wolf: Pa. can't police its way out of pandemic

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during his press conference at PA CareerLink in York Tuesday, July 28, 2020. Wolf was highlighting the importance of job-finding resources in light of the unemployment cause by the COVID-19 outbreak in the state. Bill Kalina photo

Gov. Tom Wolf and other state officials on Monday conceded that police enforcement of the state’s mask-wearing mandate alone cannot turn the tides of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Democrat's comments at the Susquehanna Township Police Department in Dauphin County came as the Pennsylvania State Police's numbers continue to show a scant number of citations and local law enforcement agencies stress they have bigger fish to fry.

"If we want to have our best outcome, this doesn't depend on enforcement," Wolf said. "It depends on us doing what we do because we understand how important it is."

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Wolf's administration has repeatedly touted its enforcement abilities when imploring residents to wear masks and for businesses to obey his restrictions.

But when it comes to the enforcement of general health and safety guidelines, PSP has issued just 57 warnings since April 19, six of which were from the PSP troop covering York County.

No citations have been issued.

There have also been few citations given out to establishments licensed to sell liquor for flouting Wolf's health mandates, considering that PSP's Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement has done thousands of inspections.

Establishments with liquor licenses can be fined as much as $1,000 or have their liquor licenses suspended or revoked if they don't uphold mandates such as wearing masks.

On Monday, PSP announced that between Friday and Sunday, it had checked more than 1,200 establishments. It doled out 52 warnings and three notices of violations — meaning citations are pending.

Ten of those warnings were given to establishments in the Harrisburg region, while no businesses in the region received notices of violations.

Lt. Col. Scott Price, of the state police, echoed that police enforcement alone won't be enough to compel compliance with Wolf's orders and suppress the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We know we can't cite or arrest our way out of this pandemic," Price said. "At the same time, however, the very real threat means that penalties may be imposed."

Nationally, some experts have warned against police enforcing social distancing and mask mandates. The results, they say, would likely disproportionately hit racial minorities, an issue that's already a flashpoint across the U.S. 

While the governor said Monday that local officials have also been tasked with helping with enforcement, local police departments in York County have opted to focus elsewhere. 

Northern York County Regional Police Chief Dave Lash, for example, told The York Dispatch last week his department has handled "very few complaints" since the July mask-wearing mandate expansion.

York City Police Officer Derek Hartman, the department’s spokesperson, also said the department has received relatively few complaints.

“It’s too volatile of an issue, and there’s bigger crime problems and issues that we need to face as a law enforcement agency, as to whether or not people wear masks,” Lash said.

Meanwhile, enforcement of the mask mandate at York County's judicial center has been lax. 

Wearing face coverings has become an increasingly partisan issue since the COVID-19 pandemic arose in March, something Wolf said Monday shouldn't be the case.

Breaks over mask-wearing mandates deepened further last month, when Wolf announced all Pennsylvanians who leave their homes must wear face coverings.

For example, according to a Franklin and Marshall College poll released Thursday, 88% of those identifying as liberal and 84% identifying as moderate believe it is "extremely important" to wear a face mask outside the home.

Meanwhile, only 42% of those identifying as conservative shared that same belief.

As of noon Monday, there were 2,350 cases of COVID-19 in York County and 88 deaths linked to the disease.

Statewide, there were 114,155 cases and 7,209 deaths.

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