By Jan Murphy
Pennsylvania will join with at least five other states in working together on coordinating each of their efforts to reopen their economies and get people back to work.
Organized by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Gov. Tom Wolf, along with the governors of New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island have agreed to form a council to develop plans for lifting their respective stay-at-home orders. They’ll work on getting businesses operating again while minimizing the risk of a resurgence of COVID-19.
The group will include a health expert and an economic development official from each state along with each governor’s chief of staff. Cuomo said the expectation is to begin work immediately on developing a set of guidelines and the work is to be completed within weeks.
“We’ve never been here before but that doesn’t mean you can’t ensure public confidence that you are doing everything you can to do it in a smart way, an informed way, guided by experts and data and science and not in a political way,” Cuomo said. “I think working together we can do that.”
During a conference call with reporters, Cuomo said the idea behind this coordinated effort is to address these issues in a cooperative way to avoid having neighboring states enacting policies that contradict one another.
Even if a state moves toward adopting contradictory policies, “at least then we see the clash and we’re aware of it and we try to work it out. If you can’t work it out, you can’t work it out.”
Wolf welcomed the opportunity to work together as a region, sharing ideas and plans for getting the states’ economies back on track. But just as it is important to come up with specific strategies for reopening schools and businesses, Wolf said it is equally critical to figure “out how we are going to restore the sense of hope that this pandemic has taken away from so many of us.”
He indicated Pennsylvania will be represented on this newly formed council by state health secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, his Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin, and his Chief of Staff Mike Brunelle.
“We need to do this right and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Wolf said. “We need to come up with a specific and a smarter plan for this uncertain future that lies ahead. But it is also that we are creating a plan to let our people (know), the people that we serve, the citizens of our state, that we indeed do have a future.”
The council will create this framework that relies on data, science, social and economic information to figure out a way to ease up the social restrictions without sparking a renewed spread, including testing, contact tracing, treatment and social distancing.
This announcement from these Democratic governors comes on the same day President Donald Trump tweeted that it is his and the federal government’s decision to open up states, not the governors themselves.
Wolf said it was governors who had the responsibility for closing down their states so they see it as their responsibility for deciding when and how to reopen them.
“And we’re now ready to go into the next step which is to start moving back to some sense of normal, the new normal and do it as we have, working together,” he said.
Wolf’s decision to participate in the multi-state recovery discussion was applauded by Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa of Allegheny County.
“COVID-19 has no borders and we are all in this together,” Costa said. “His decision-making thus far in the pandemic, coupled with the expertise of Dr. Levine, has undoubtedly saved lives and I trust that their work as part of this collaborative effort will be equally thoughtful.”
House Republicans also found it encouraging to see “the governor finally take notice of the need to plan for our state’s recovery,” said spokesman Mike Straub. “However, we should never cede economic decisions to other states and we will continue to engage with Pennsylvania’s residents about what exactly they need to successfully rebuild and recover from this pandemic.”
Senate Republican spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher expressed even more skepticism about the multi-state effort.
“Given that the governor is already implementing a one-size-fits-all COVID-19 response for Pennsylvania, we are leery about having New York City and Newark dictate how we safety return to life in places like Huntingdon and Lewistown,” said Kocher. “We don’t think it was a coincidence that the Republican governors of Maryland, Massachusetts and Ohio were not included in this plan despite everyone emphasizing how important a regional approach is.”
“This is about being smart first, not political, smart,” Cuomo said. He said he would welcome other states into the council.
Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, lawmakers are focusing their attention on other recovery ideas.
The House approved along party-lines a bill that would, among other things, establish a bipartisan inter-governmental branch cost and recovery task force. On Tuesday, the House is planning to be in session and may consider a bill that would provide pathways for more businesses to reopen and workers to get back to work.
That GOP-backed legislation calls for replacing the Wolf Administration’s list of life-sustaining businesses with less-restrictive guidance from the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and requiring them to follow Centers for Disease Control COVID-19 mitigation guidelines.
“The governor has provided some businesses with waivers [to his business closure order],” Straub said. “If others prove they can meet those guidelines, they should have the opportunity to work – rather than be forced to lose their businesses, cut their employees and their abilities to provide for their families.”
The state’s health secretary on Monday again cautioned against a widespread reopening of businesses, saying that would be “a very big mistake.”
Levine said, “That would cost lives and lead to the overwhelming of our health care system.”
Several governors during the governors’ conference call shared their concern about that, including New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.
Murphy said “an economic recovery only occurs on the back of a complete health care recovery and that order is essential. Getting that wrong, transposing those steps” can lead to unintended consequences “which could be grave.”
“This is a fight of our lives. Let there be no doubt about it,” Murphy said. “We’re not out of the woods yet and reopening ourselves back up will be equally challenging beyond the shadow of a doubt.”
“That would be so demoralizing for our economies,” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont said. “That’s why we want to do it on a coordinated basis, have a database that we share, establish the same protocols so we we know how we’re working together.”
Jan Murphy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.
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