PA Gov: Stay shut down or no federal funding for you

Don’t make Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf angry. You won’t like him when he’s angry.

But that’s precisely what some counties around the Keystone State are preparing to do if they decide to reopen nonessential businesses ahead of the state’s planned schedule. And some of them, particularly in the rural areas with few cases of COVID-19 are considering doing so. That’s not going to sit well with the Governor and he took to Twitter to let them know that there would be “consequences” for their actions if they do. (The Hill)

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) warned Monday that counties that disobey state directives and allow businesses to reopen would face consequences.

In a series of tweets, the governor said county officials who nonessential businesses to reopen would lose access to federal stimulus funding, while individual businesses that disobeyed the state orders risked citations.

“I won’t sit back and watch residents who live in counties under Stay at Home orders get sick because local leaders cannot see the risks of #COVID19 and push to reopen prematurely,” he tweeted. “Today I am announcing consequences for counties that do not abide by the law to remain closed.”

Counties that do not abide by the law?” First of all, we should point out that these aren’t exactly “laws” we’re talking about here. They’re executive orders put in place by one person with no official input from the legislature. But be that as it may, what are the “consequences” being threatened?

Wolf said that he would make noncompliant counties ineligible for federal stimulus discretionary funds. On top of that, any dine-in restaurants that opened before receiving the state’s blessings would be hit with citations, leading to not only fines but the possible loss of their liquor licenses. Ouch.

But wait a minute. I thought threatening to withhold federal funding for failure to follow orders was a bad thing. It’s even “racist” to do so, as I recall. I’m sure I heard that somewhere before, particularly when it comes to federal grants for sanctuary cities. Oh, that’s right. I heard it from Tom Wolf.

This is far from the first case we’ve seen where executives are using a heavy hand to swat down local officials who consider charting their own course. And the threat to use the power of the state to end someone’s livelihood by taking away a state-mandated license isn’t new either. New York and Rhode Island have issued similar threats in recent weeks, among others.

There’s also an interesting political angle to this as well. As I mentioned above, many of the counties that are looking at opening earlier are the ones that never developed a serious outbreak of novel coronavirus cases. They feel they have the situation under control and are ready to carefully begin opening back up while keeping social distancing and sterilization protocols in place. They also happen to largely be the more rural, conservative counties that generally didn’t vote for the Democratic governor. (His support largely comes from the major urban centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.) Funny how that works out, huh?

This spat highlights once again the problems we’re seeing with these one-size-fits-all approaches to dealing with the pandemic. Pennsylvania’s cities have taken the brunt of the damage from the virus and they will obviously need to be more cautious about restarting business in those densely populated locations. But why not just let the rural counties decide for themselves? The county executives have a better handle on the specific conditions where they live than the state government does.

Assuming we make our way out of this mess, much of the history of this pandemic won’t be written about the virus itself and all of the sickness and death that swept the land. It will be about the aggressive, authoritarian moves being taken by elected executive branch officials. And not all of these actors will be painted in a good light.