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Legislators should forgo summer plans

After being told for weeks to “stay at home,” Pennsylvanians should start a new rallying cry: “Stay in Harrisburg.”

Traditionally, after passing a budget around July 1, the General Assembly goes on a two-month-plus vacation, euphemistically referred to as a district work period.

But now, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, there are important matters that must be addressed, and that should keep the General Assembly in session over the summer.

Many Pennsylvanians have become tired and angry over Gov. Tom Wolf’s snail-like pace to easing restrictions on counties with low coronavirus cases, such as much of central Pennsylvania with the possible exception of Centre and Huntingdon counties.

Yet Centre County is one of 24 that reopened Friday under a regional plan announced in mid-April, even though Blair, Bedford, Cambria and many other counties have fewer cases.

While we are pleased a number of area counties, including Blair, Bedford and Cambria, will move to a yellow phase on Friday, much more work remains including what must happen to move to the green phase and whether there are ways more businesses and offices can operate with restrictions in relative safety.

We encourage the Legislature, as the people’s representatives, should examine common-sense measures that can be enacted to balance fears about the spread of COVID-19 with the looming economic catastrophe facing families and small businesses.

While some action might be taken before July, clearly the General Assembly needs to do more this summer.

Our elected officials need to codify rules governing the current and future emergency orders, such when closures are recommended or mandatory and how long they can remain in effect without legislative or county approval; who is responsible for enforcing such orders; how and what penalties can be levied; what types of businesses can stay open or must close under an emergency order; what steps should be taken so small businesses are not put at a disadvantage by being closed while big-box stores selling identical or similar items remain open; what the exception process should be and how to make that process transparent; how businesses can suggest steps to allow reopening and have them fairly, promptly and publicly reviewed; and more.

Obviously, there must be flexibility in the rules to accommodate different types of emergencies, but better guidelines and restrictions could help.

Largely, Pennsylvanians initially accepted Wolf’s closure order because of dire warnings of coronavirus spread and deaths, but in most of the state, the worst-case scenario was far from the reality. And in those areas, residents are clamoring to move closer to normal and to learn what clear steps must be met for that to happen.

Obviously, a governor needs to have the power to act quickly to issue emergency orders, but there should be a point at which legislators — or at least the majority of the top eight leaders in the House and the Senate — must concur for orders to continue.

Wolf’s mixed messages and nebulous criteria have not served Pennsylvanians fairly. Legislative action must be taken to ensure this is never repeated, especially if a second wave of COVID-19 hits, as some predict this fall.

Legislators should skip the vacation and address these matters. Stay in Harrisburg.

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