EDITORIAL: Take care with guidance

The Dispatch Editorial Board
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)

Clear, precise language is just what Pennsylvanians need right now from their governor.

They didn't get that Monday. 

That's when Gov. Tom Wolf stepped up to the podium in Harrisburg and announced a statewide shutdown of some businesses citing the spread of the coronavirus.

By the announcement's end, it was clear bars and restaurants had been ordered closed. But, as for the rest of the state's so-called "nonessential" businesses, well, that was anybody's guess.

Reporters at the media conference pressed Wolf, going so far as asking him if he would call in the National Guard or state police to enforce his edict.

Republican state lawmakers — believing Wolf had overstepped his authority — panicked, believing Wolf had shuttered almost every public-facing business in the state. And business owners themselves were left wondering if, in a matter of hours, they'd be closing their doors or defying a gubernatorial decree.

That's not what ultimately happened. Nor is it what Wolf intended. Instead, he closed state liquor stores, on top of his takeout-only order for restaurants.

His office issued a statement hours after the news conference saying he only "strongly urged" other nonessential business — such as theaters, salons and concert venues — to consider closing.

The blip of uncertainty was doubtlessly another gut punch to businesses statewide that are already taking a beating from the coronavirus. 

Monday wasn't the first time Wolf's lack of linguistic precision fostered unnecessary chaos. This past week, Pennsylvania's governor ordered closed every public school in the state.

And, as of Monday, school administrators still weren't clear if Wolf's action also meant they couldn't provide online courses to makeup a little bit of what's being lost without classroom instruction.

Earlier this month, Wolf issued shutdown orders for several counties hard-hit by the coronavirus, most notably Montgomery County, which, at 32 as of Wednesday, has by far the most cases in the state. That, too, left local officials and businesses with more questions than answers.

There's a pattern here: The governor rolls out a plan, and his staff spends the next 12 hours clarifying what it all means.

That's a problem.

Over the past week, governors throughout the country have imposed significantly more severe measures than Wolf. And the likes of Andrew Cuomo of New York, Gavin Newsom of California and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, have largely done so without half of the confusion and chaos that's ensued in Pennsylvania.

It speaks to a lack of precision on the part of Wolf's administration that could do real-world economic damage while adding additional stress to a situation already causing panic. 

Wolf's defenders put the blame squarely on Republican lawmakers who aren't reading closely the administration's guidances and legal briefs.

Yet Monday's media conference alone was enough to show that the lack of clarity is flowing straight from the governor's office. 

Make no mistake, Wolf's attempts at stemming the spread of the coronavirus is laudable. He's listened to his health experts. He's mulled the consequences of his actions. He's balanced caution with urgency.

But Wolf would be well-served to choose his words carefully from here on out.