OP-ED: Protecting lives and livelihoods

State Rep. Seth Grove

Over the past six weeks, Pennsylvanians have been forced to battle a deadly and invisible virus, which has wreaked havoc on our communities and killed thousands of our loved ones. The novel coronavirus has not only threatened the public health of our communities, it has placed the livelihoods of millions of at risk. 

In the time since Gov. Tom Wolf ordered “nonessential” businesses on March 19 to close, more than 1.6 million Pennsylvanians, approximately 25% of the state’s workforce, have been forced to file for unemployment. For many of these workers, not only has their current livelihood been placed at risk, but many saw their retirement savings suffer as stocks dropped by 5,000 points.

As we have done countless times before, Pennsylvanians banded together and did our part to flatten the curve. This has been reflected in the data from the Department of Health over the past few weeks with a steady decline in new cases. Recognizing the progress made by the commonwealth, House Republicans began trying to lay the groundwork for our road to recovery.

Thousands rally to reopen Pennsylvania in front of the Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Monday, April 20,2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

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Over the past two weeks, we have passed legislation that would have allowed our economy to reopen by May 2 if they could meet guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Homeland Security. Unfortunately, Wolf opted to veto Senate Bill 613 and take a unilateral approach to allow only limited construction to begin on May 8. He has since reversed his position allowing construction to reopen on May 1 but kept restrictions in place for the rest of the economy.

Since the governor and his allies in the legislature routinely state that Pennsylvania’s approach to handling the virus and our economy must be led by data and health experts, I think it’s important for people to understand what both are telling us. According to data released by Health Department, Pennsylvania has seen an average decline in new cases over the past 14 days. This requirement was key in the White House’s guideline for beginning to reopen our economy.

UPMC, which was responsible for a COVID-19 vaccine approved for testing, announced they will resume elective surgeries. Their announcement contradicts the governor’s order but was based on an assessment by their medical staff on whether they could reopen while keeping their patients and the community safe.

At the same time, data collected from the states shows many of the 42 states that permitted economic activity using the federal guidelines, which Senate Bill 613 would have required the governor to follow, have fewer cases per million people than Pennsylvania. This includes states such as Florida and Texas, which have 9 million and 16 million more residents, respectively, than Pennsylvania. Keep in mind these states, with vastly larger populations, have significantly lower number of cases despite allowing more economic activity than Pennsylvania.

Reopening the economy should not only be based on public health data, but on economic data as well. According to the former head of the Small Business Administration, who served under President Barrack Obama, 20% to 30% of small businesses could never reopen under the best of scenarios. Putting this into perspective, small businesses employed approximately 2.4 million Pennsylvanians. If the commonwealth were to lose 20% of its small businesses this means 480,000 Pennsylvanians, nearly 10% of our workforce, could permanently be jobless.

There is no mistaking the dangers presented by the virus. However, we must also realize the devastating impact of the reaction on people’s livelihoods. Since March 15, 1.6 million have filed for unemployment compensation, and my office has been flooded with calls from Pennsylvanians struggling to receive unemployment benefits. Too often, these residents have gone a month or longer without pay and are worried about falling behind on their mortgage and putting food on the table.

While I appreciate the governor finally putting forward a plan for reopening our commonwealth, the many desperate Pennsylvanians calling my office cannot afford to wait until May 8.

We heard repeatedly from the governor and the secretary of Health the goal was to “flatten the curve” and ensure our hospitals are not overrun. By all measurements, that goal has been achieved. We can fight this virus in a manner that protects people’s lives and their livelihoods. Now is the time to safely reopen.

— State Rep. Seth Grove is a Republican from Dover representing the 196th House District.