Editorial: A governor and a handful of counties go to war over reopening

Several mostly rural Pennsylvania counties have begun making reopening plans in defiance of the governor's orders


The Baltimore Sun
By Baltimore Sun Editorial Board

Imagine a state where elected officials were so at odds over how and when to lift stay-at-home restrictions that millions of dollars in COVID-19 aid might be withheld by the governor, who wants restrictions to stay in place, while local law enforcement officials, who don’t, promise not to prosecute businesses that reopen.

Oh, and here’s a little extra Civil War flavor to throw into the mix: The nation’s president is openly encouraging the rebels. It isn’t Maryland, where Gov. Larry Hogan has so far mostly kept rural counties on board. It isn’t any state south of the Mason-Dixon, but you’re getting warm. The state is Pennsylvania, and the counties up in arms are in the nearby Susquehanna River valley and include, fittingly, Adams County, home to the Battle of Gettysburg 157 years ago this July.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf threatened Monday, May 11, 2020 to block aid to rebellious counties in an escalating political fight over his administration's handling of the coronavirus. Image: AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf threatened Monday, May 11, 2020 to block aid to rebellious counties in an escalating political fight over his administration's handling of the coronavirus. Image: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

It’s no replay of the war that lasted from April 1861 to April 1865, more like an absurdist’s take on rebellion. On one side is Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, who on Monday announced his threat to withhold federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds from any county that fails to follow coronavirus-related restrictions. On the other are 10 mostly rural, majority Republican counties, including several on the Maryland state line, that are either planning to lift restrictions this week or have announced indifference to businesses that reopen despite the ban.

Making the circumstances all the more complicated is that Governor Wolf has already partially lifted restrictions in two dozen counties, with 13 more set to join them in the “yellow” phase this Friday.

Pennsylvania’s governor appears to have chosen the science-based, guarded approach that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as other medical experts, have been seeking. And it’s certainly not the “one size fits all” model that protesters across the country have been complaining about.

Governor Wolf has made clear that to qualify for the partial lifting of restrictions a county must see its 14-day average of COVID-19 new cases fall below 50 per 100,000 people. That’s the chief metric but not the only one. Yet county leaders see something nefarious and political in this process, and Governor Wolf’s choice to withhold federal relief dollars has them seeing red. As does a certain Yankee living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue who recognizes a swing state opportunity to foment anger and resentment when he sees one.

Certainly, there might be a reasonable argument to be made, perhaps even county by county, about the particulars, whether Pennsylvania is using the best yardstick, for example, or whether the red, yellow and green phases outlined for the Keystone State are appropriate. The pandemic didn’t come with hard and fast rules about what is the best way to slow its fearsome spread.

But unilateral declarations of politics or unfairness are not about science or safety or, frankly, about anyone’s best welfare. It’s an obvious attempt to curry favor with people who are frustrated by the economic harm coronavirus restrictions have caused and are probably suspicious about what medical experts have to say on the subject. Turning this into a conspiracy about how Democrats in Harrisburg seek to cause further harm isn’t much of a leap for such individuals.

There used to be a time when presidents put country first, sought unity and respected scientific opinion. But when the current officeholder is presented with the example of Abraham Lincoln, his first instinct is to complain that he gets worse press than his predecessor, who was sometimes described back then by newspapers as an “idiot,” “yahoo” and “gorilla."

Never mind that the governor of Maryland has lifted far fewer restrictions than Mr. Wolf and hasn’t chosen a county-by-county approach. Where’s the Twitter-tantrum about him? Here’s a theory: Larry Hogan is a Republican, and Maryland is no swing state. There’s no political advantage for President Donald Trump to attack Mr. Hogan’s stay-at-home orders.

The standoff between Governor Wolf and the leaders in those Susquehanna counties isn’t good. Denying disaster assistance is not an action to be taken lightly but then neither is openly defying state government.

Still, it’s critical that no one “deserts the coronavirus battlefield," to paraphrase Mr. Wolf, right now as it’s entirely possible that the worst of this pandemic is yet to come. As Dr. Anthony Fauci and others noted in testimony Tuesday in the Senate, the U.S. needs fast, accessible and reliable COVID-19 testing before “reopening” America and the country doesn’t yet have it. The stakes are high. It took three days for 3,155 Union and 3,903 Confederate soldiers to die at Gettysburg a century and a half ago. It took fewer than two days to lose that many Americans to the virus this week.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

(c)2020 The Baltimore Sun

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