Using the powers voters awarded them last month, the state Legislature’s Republican majorities brought a sudden end Thursday to Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic disaster declarations.
Resolutions to formally close the 16-month state of emergency passed on mostly party line votes first by a 30-20 margin in the Senate, and later in the House, 121-81.
The actions are effective with Thursday’s votes, since the Constitutional amendments passed by statewide ballot referendums on May 18 now give the General Assembly the authority to end a governor’s emergency declaration with a simple majority vote.
For many Pennsylvanians, the legislative votes simply put a political stamp on an unusual era that – for all intents and purposes – ended with one or two vaccination shots earlier this year. Even Gov. Tom Wolf, the architect of the prolonged disaster regimen, stood down all the broad public health restrictions but for certain masking mandates effective with Memorial Day.
The final language did contain some compromises.
While ending the disaster declaration, the measures passed Thursday do leave most of the nearly 500 regulatory changes taken under Wolf’s original and renewed disaster declarations intact through September.
These changes, effected through the administration’s emergency powers s the pandemic played out, did things like suspending certification and licensure renewals for doctors and other direct care workers, which allowed recent retirees to supplement hospital and other medical staffs as demand soared.
Other emergency changes loosened rules governing on-line provision of medical services during the pandemic, while still more allowed the state to maximize the number of vaccine providers and improve vaccine distribution.
Keeping the regulatory changes in place for the short term was the result of a compromise between legislative leaders and Wolf’s team that gives all sides three months to determine what COVID-19 rules they need to keep, which they want to keep to prevent federal funds from being blocked, which they want to keep for policy reasons, and which should be sunsetted.
Republicans applauded today’s actions, which put a period on furious efforts to end pandemic restrictions that gained steam with some business owners last May and have led to various legislative, court and political battles.
They achieved their goal with the passage of the amendments last month. For many in the majority, Thursday’s vote was matter of honoring that result.
“My constituents have spoken loudly, they want this over,” said Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson County.
Still, most Democrats in the legislature voted against the disaster-ending resolution.
Some said they believe it’s too early from a public health standpoint, even though nearly 60 percent of Pennsylvania’s adult population is now fully vaccinated.
“There is no guarantee that the vaccines are going to be effective against new mutations,” warned Sen. Amanda Cappelletti, D-Montgomery County. “What happens when the virus rears its ugly head again and we’re caught flat-footed? It’ll be worse than 2020.
“This is a move to gain political points for the next election cycle. It’s not legislating with the health and safety of Pennsylvanians as the priority, which is what we should be doing,” she continued. “Passing this resolution could cost us lives, and I hope that the deaths of those Pennsylvanians will haunt those who vote yes for this resolution for the rest of their lives.”
Others expressed concern that the Republican majorities were rushing to the end before getting absolute certainty that ending the emergency won’t staunch the flow of hundreds of millions of pandemic-related federal funding that has helped to protect the state’s neediest residents.
They were particularly worried about closing the door to emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funding, that has provided extra monthly benefits to several hundred thousand households in Pennsylvania through the pandemic.
During Thursday’s debate, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland County, was unable to definitively guarantee that the extra SNAP benefits won’t be affected, saying her understanding is that in the worst case scenario the extra funding would at least run through the summer months.
But Ward also promised she and her colleagues will bend every effort to make sure they are protected, and said the temporary extension of the regulatory suspensions and waivers is proof of their good faith on that point, even as Wolf’s ability to order unilateral business closures or limit public gatherings has ended.
“We were able to protect those waivers until the end of September, while we try to back out of this situation we’re in. We did not get in it all in one day, and we’re not going to get out of it all in one day,” Ward said. “… But the people of Pennsylvania wanted the emergency to be over. It’s over. It was going to be over at some point, and that over is today.”