PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Gov. Wolf Hits Pause To Reduce COVID Deaths; Election Challenges Fizzle
On Thursday, Gov. Wolf announced he was putting in place temporary restrictions he said would put Pennsylvania on “pause” to help reduce the soaring number of new COVID deaths and cases related to the disease. Read more here.
In the last two weeks, the Department of Health reported over 1,100 new deaths and hit a very tragic one-day record of 248. There are now over 5,668 Pennsylvanians hospitalized with the virus and 1,151 are in intensive care using just over 85 percent of the available ICU beds. Read more here.
The announcement was made just two days after the Governor said he tested positive for COVID and was in quarantine [Read more here.], along with members of his security detail [Read more here]. On Thursday, First Lady Frances Wolf tested negative for COVID. Read more here.
Gov. Wolf has since tested negative for COVID twice. Read more here.
The primary restrictions the Governor and the Secretary of Health imposed prohibit indoor dining at restaurants and bars, closed gyms and theaters and suspend extracurricular activities at schools until January 4.
In-person classes at schools, however, can continue in spite of the fact there have been about 9,500 cases of COVID in children age 5 to 18 in the past two weeks out of a total of 37,5000 cases in children since the pandemic began. Read more here.
“With these measures in place, we hope to accomplish three goals: First, stop the devastating spread of COVID-19 in the Commonwealth. Second, keep our hospitals and health care workers from becoming overwhelmed. And third, help Pennsylvanians get through the holiday season – and closer to a widely available vaccine – as safely as possible,” said Gov. Wolf. “This is a bridge to a better future in Pennsylvania.”
Hospitals– like the Penn State Hershey Medical Center– have already limited elective surgeries [Read more here], UPMC is converting more beds for use by COVID patients [Read more here], an emergency room doctor in Bucks County said the holidays are a ‘horror show in the making’ [Read more here]; in Lancaster an intensive care unit nurse detailed the impact the increasing number of COVID cases are having on care [Read more here] and in Westmoreland County hospital officials are pleading with the public to follow mitigation rules [Read more here].
The rising number of cases has forced a federal judge to halt all grand jury investigations in Western Pennsylvania [Read more here] and several county courts have suspended operations until mid-January [Read more here]; state [Read more here] and local [Read more here] prison systems are seeing large, new COVID outbreaks and deaths; and businesses like Mack Trucks in the Lehigh Valley, the area’s largest manufacturer, is in the middle of its largest COVID outbreak so far [Read more here].
To get a better sense of the scope of these impacts across the state, visit the Weekly COVID NewsClips webpage.
Business groups like the National Federation of Independent Businesses in PA were critical of the Governor’s actions, saying “While acknowledging the serious nature of the ongoing COVID emergency, we again raise concern over the harm these actions will have on Pennsylvania’s small businesses and their employees. These steps will result in another wave of business failures and the loss of all the jobs that go with it.
“Governor Wolf expresses verbal concern over the harms to small business, but his actions indicate a total lack of understanding of what is really happening. Today’s order will be the death knell for so many struggling shops and stores. Unfortunately, Governor Wolf’s order was not coupled with any plan, to support the hundreds of business owners, their employees, and families his measures will impact.”
Gov. Wolf reminded folks again he asked the Republican Senate and House in August to provide financial aid to small businesses impacted by the pandemic, but they used $1.3 billion in federal CARES COVID funding to balance the FY 2020-21 state budget instead.
On Friday, House Democrats issued a statement saying Republicans had the chance to provide relief to small businesses in the state budget, but chose not to. Read more here.
The previous week, Senate Democrats proposed a $4 billion plan to provide aid to small businesses, workers and others impacted by the COVID pandemic. Read more here.
Neither the Senate nor House Republicans have a plan to provide relief or the dramatically increasing number of COVID deaths and cases.
Gov. Wolf has also called on Congress to provide additional federal assistance to small businesses and states and to extend unemployment and other federal aid programs past their December 31 cutoff.
Mask Mandate Stands
On Friday, a federal judge in Pennsylvania refused to void the state face mask mandate and contract tracking system in a challenge brought by two couples who said Gov. Wolf was acting like a “kin” and trampling on their constitutional rights. Read more here.
Bipartisan Call For COVID Action
On Thursday, Gov. Wolf joined a bipartisan call by the nation’s governors urging federal action on a strategy to defeat COVID. Read more here.
The Call to Action addressed the five key pillars of an effective response to the pandemic: testing, contract tracing, public health and social measures, vaccines and treatments, and common measures of success.
On Thursday, Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine testified in front of the U.S. Senate, Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Transportation and Safety at a hearing entitled, “The Logistics of Transporting a COVID-19 Vaccine. Read more here.
“The introduction of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines will be a critical tool to combat the rampant viral spread in the United States,” Dr. Levine said in her testimony. “However, distributing the COVID-19 vaccine along with administering it is a herculean effort.”
The Department of Health also provided a status report Friday on where the six COVID vaccines now undergoing trials stand in the federal approval process. Read more here.
On Monday, House Republicans, in their only response to the increasing number of COVID cases in the state last week, said they would again pursue legislation to give businesses, school districts and medical providers protection from COVID-related lawsuits, after Gov. Wolf vetoed House Bill 1737 the week before. Read more here.
Business groups like the PA Chamber of Business and Industry also opined the Governor’s liability bill veto left businesses “out in the cold” as they try to deal with the challenges of the pandemic. Read more here.
There were several reports last week dealing with what advocates believe is a coming “tsunami” of evictions [Read more here] that could mean hundreds of thousands of families across Pennsylvania could lose their homes in January, after emergency unemployment benefits and federal CDC eviction moratorium expire on December 31 [Read more here].
Again, Gov. Wolf in August asked the Senate and House to provide help to renters and landlords to help avoid evictions, but no help was forthcoming. Read more here.
In fact, the Senate and House did not make the changes in law requested by many groups in a renter and homeowner mortgage assistance program and as a result millions of dollars in assistance was left unused. Read more here.
Dec. 14 Electoral College Vote
The Presidential Electoral College meets on December 14 to cast their votes for President. The Department of State will provide live coverage of the Pennsylvania electors meeting on Monday starting at Noon. Click Here or Here to watch online.
So far, legal challenges to the election outcome in Pennsylvania by Republicans have failed in the U.S. Supreme Court [Read more here], in Pennsylvania at the PA Supreme Court [Read more here] and Commonwealth Court [Read more here].
Late Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously refused to hear the last major challenge to Pennsylvania’s election results by Texas, other states and Republicans from across the country and in Pennsylvania. Read more here.
The lawsuit was filed by the Texas Attorney General, who is under investigation for corruption and bribery. Read more here.
In his brief before the U.S. Supreme Court, Attorney General Josh Shapiro called the attempt a ‘seditious abuse’ of the courts that rests on conspiracy theories and falsehoods and a ‘cacophony of bogus claims.’ Read more here. Click Here to read the AG’s brief.
Seven Republican members of Congress from Pennsylvania also signed on to the Texas lawsuit. Read more here.
One editorial called Republican Congressman Dan Meuser’s participation in support of the Texas lawsuit “a naked and undemocratic power grab” that would “disenfranchise millions of his fellow Pennsylvanians.” Read more here.
In addition, Republican Congressman Scott Perry and 27 other Congressional Republicans called on the U.S. Attorney General to appoint a special counsel to investigate the results of the 2020 election. Read more here.
This in spite of the fact U.S. Attorney General Barr said on December 1, “… we have not seen faud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” Read more here.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press did a piece on how the various legal challenges and other efforts to undermine the election results in Pennsylvania put Republicans in a position of contradicting themselves. Read more here.
Outgoing Republican U.S. Senator Pat Toomey called the Trump Campaign’s efforts to overturn the state’s election results ‘completely unacceptable.’ Read more here.
Other editorials across the state have called the Republican efforts to undermine the election an “affront to democracy,” House Republicans should be “ashamed,” and efforts to undermine the election are “not normal.”
Another commentator said state Republican efforts to undermine the election are “abetting” Trump’s coup and voters “deserve better.” Read more here.
Most Expensive Election
While the cost of just running the 2020 election in Pennsylvania has yet to be totaled, a report by Spotlight PA already concluded it is the most expensive election ever, just from the standpoint of overtime paid to county election workers. Read more here.
Dauphin County went $700,000 over its budget and if it wasn’t for the federal CARES COVID aid money, the election director there said they would have been on their own.
Lycoming County spent four times his office’s budget and he literally has $10 left in his account.
Delaware County had $993,000 budgeted for elections in 2020. For 2021, it has $3.8 million. Montgomery County spent almost $2 million more than the $3.5 million it had originally budgeted.
And, counties are looking to allocate even more money to running elections in 2021, although the federal CARES money is no longer available. Read more here.
State Court Changes
Two Democratic candidates announced they are running for nominations to the PA Superior Court– Jill Beck, an attorney from Pittsburgh [Read more here] and Philadelphia Judge Timika Lane [Read more here].
Interesting to note two PA Supreme Court justices will reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 in the next two years– Republican Chief Justice Thomas Saylor (December 2021) and Democratic Associate Justice Max Baer (December 2022).
What Does $20.7 Billion Buy?
Last week, the Independent Fiscal Office reported businesses in Pennsylvania received over $20.7 billion in federal CARES COVID aid through the Paycheck Protection Program. Read more here.
By their best estimates, that $20.7 billion may have saved 63,000 to 126,000 jobs at a cost of between $150,000 to $300,000 per job, far more than the average employee’s salary.
Schools Come Up Short
On Monday, the PA Budget and Policy Center reported the General Assembly used a formula to distribute $175 million in federal CARES COVID aid that favored rich school districts over poor ones. Read more here.
The report said the poorest quartile of school districts — based on enrollment — received $36 million of the $175 million, less than each of the three other quartiles.
In one case, the report said, the two poorest school districts in Lancaster County were shortchanged $1.5 million. Read more here.
Gov. Wolf’s spokesman said he went along with the allocation “in the spirit of compromise.” Read more here.
Misuse Of $150 Million?
On Tuesday, groups representing the state’s nursing home industry filed a lawsuit against the state saying it has withheld more than $150 million in federal CARES aid that was intended to help long-term care facilities deal with the financial burden of the pandemic. Read more here.
A Department of Human Services spokesperson said the lawsuit “seeks only more money for nursing facilities throughout the Commonwealth that have already received more than $800 million in taxpayer stimulus.”
The spokesperson said the assertions in the lawsuit are “simply false.”
About 7,000 residents of nursing homes in the state have died, representing more than 60 percent of the statewide death toll. Read more here.
Statewide Percent Positivity 16.2%
As of Friday, the statewide COVID percent-positivity went up to 16.2 percent from 14.4 percent last week. Anything above 5 percent is bad. Read more here.
The 10 counties with the highest percent-positivity include– Bedford (32.1 percent); Crawford (31 percent); Somerset (28.5 percent); Clinton (28.3 percent); Juniata (27.7 percent); Mifflin (25.3 percent); Warren (25 percent); Fayette (22.9 percent); Lawrence (21.7 percent); and Cambria (21.6 percent).
For comparison, Allegheny County is 14.6 percent up from 12.6 percent up last week and Philadelphia is 14.8 percent up from 14.4 percent last week.
There are NO counties below the 5 percent threshold at this point. The county with the lowest percent positivity is Sullivan at 7.5 percent.
COVID-19 Record Death Toll
Last week, Pennsylvania hit a new tragic high of 248 deaths in a single day on Thursday, while the number of new COVID cases hovered between 8,000 and nearly 12,000 each day.
The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 11,262 on December 5 to 12,436 on December 12. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 411,484 on December 5 to 481,118 on December 12.
Three more legislators tested positive for COVID– Sen. John Yudichak (I-Luzerne), Rep. Mike Reese (R-Westmoreland) and Rep. Barry Jozwiak (R-Berks) bringing the total of legislators reported to have COVID to 11.
The Department of Labor and Industry reported 40,833 claims for unemployment compensation between November 29 and December 5, up significantly from last week’s 26,983. Read more here.
On Monday, the Department of Labor and Industry reported more than 500,000 people currently receiving federal unemployment assistance under two CARES programs will lose that support by the end of December, if the programs are not reauthorized by Congress. Read more here.
Those same state officials reminded residents other assistance is still available through SNAP, Medicaid and other programs. Read more here.
The Other Health Emergency
Wolf Administration officials reminded the public last week Pennsylvania still has an epidemic of drug overdose deaths, noting the COVID pandemic seems to have stopped the number of deaths from declining. Read more here.
Since January of 2018, when Gov. Wolf declared a drug overdose emergency, the number of deaths had fallen by nearly 20 percent in the state, but that trend has now been flat.
Twelve Pennsylvanians die from an opioid overdose every day in Pennsylvania. Read more here.
Short Days, Big Benefits
Almost unnoticed last week was a major investigative piece by Spotlight PA on the cost of local magisterial district judges around the state. It was appropriately titled– Short Days, Big Benefits. Read more here.
The piece documented instances where some of the state’s 512 elected district judges worked one or two days a week, held a second job or tended to a family business all the while collecting a $93,338 a year salary which comes with a pension and lifetime health care.
Of course, that was far from every district judge. Most are committed to full-time service and have regular caseloads.
The annual budget for district judges is $237 million.
NY Community College Moving Into PA?
The Department of Education gave notice SUNY Corning Community College has filed applications to operate at three locations in Pennsylvania– Wyalusing, Bradford County; Tioga, Tioga County; and Westfield, Tioga County.
What? Can’t any of the colleges Pennsylvania taxpayers support now provide this service?
No Butter Sculpture
In yet another change brought by the pandemic, the Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday there would be no butter sculpture– virtual or otherwise– at the 2021 Farm Show in January. Read more here.
The 1,000 pound butter sculpture has been a popular fixture at the PA Farm Show, which itself will be virtual. After the Farm Show, the sculpture has been recycled to make biofuel.
The next official function scheduled in Harrisburg is Senate and House swearing day January 5, but even that has become controversial.
With three more legislators testing positive last week, a group of Democratic House members want their maskless Republican colleagues to be sworn in after everyone else to help prevent the spread of COVID. Read more here.
House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said House Rules already require members to wear a mask, unless they have a medical condition that would prevent it. He has also encouraged mask wearing.
Instead of having all 203 House members sworn in at one time, Speaker Cutler will have members come to the House floor in groups of 50 or so. Read more here.
The Capitol Building will be closed to visitors without tickets and the Speaker has asked members not to hold celebratory receptions. Extra chairs and tables are not being provided to members for parties this time.