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HARRISBURG, PA — The Pennsylvania legislature on Tuesday passed a resolution directing Gov. Tom Wolf to end the COVID-19 disaster emergency declaration and lift all shutdown orders.
The measure, which is aimed to end the executive order that closed businesses in March, passed the Senate by a 31-19 vote after several hours of debate. It then handily passed the House by a 121-81 vote. A dozen House Democrats voted for the measure.
But the governor's office confirmed Wednesday no action will be taken, setting up for a battle between parties.
Wolf's Press Secretary, Lyndsay Kensinger, said the governor will "disapprove" the resolution. "Until then, no action will be taken. The disaster proclamation has not been terminated by the House or Senate’s actions. Only the governor can terminate the disaster emergency," she said.
The governor is expected to address the issue at a Wednesday afternoon press conference.
All businesses were closed by governor's order on March 19 in an effort to quell the spread of the virus, which has infected nearly 77,000 in the state and killed more than 6,000. Since the closures began, nearly 2 million people have filed for unemployment in the state.
Supporters of HR 836 say the governor has no choice but to terminate the declaration, which was issued on March 6 and renewed on June 3.
"The Governor will be statutorily required to issue an order terminating the declaration in compliance with section 7301 if the House passes the resolution as adopted by the Senate. He has no discretion in this matter," Senate GOP spokesperson Jennifer Kocher tweeted Tuesday.
Republican lawmakers said under the state Constitution, the General Assembly has the authority to terminate a state of disaster emergency at any time by concurrent resolution. "Upon adoption of the resolution, the governor must issue an executive order or proclamation ending the state of disaster emergency," House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler said.
But Wolf is pushing back, and Democratic leaders said the vote is symbolic only and has no bearing on the closure orders.
Kensinger said the resolution would not affect the Secretary of Health’s order, including business closure orders, building safety orders, and business safety orders, "and therefore the Administration’s phased reopening plan and associated orders would remain in place even if it passes."
She pointed to additional legislative measures tied to the disaster proclamation, including Unemployment Compensation eligibility requirements, property tax relief, and educational tax credit waivers.
Republican lawmakers, eager to pass the measure, said the orders are "hurting families and doing irreparable harm to employers."
“State law allows for the temporary suspension of civil liberties under dire circumstances – and this certainly was a dramatic time. The need to suspend civil liberties in the interest of public health and safety has clearly passed," said Jake Corman, the Senate Majority Leader. He added: "People need to have the freedom to return to normalcy and decide for themselves the level of engagement with society that they are comfortable doing."
House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody called the votes a "symbolic exercise."
“The pandemic emergency is not over. It’s not done," Dermody said in a statement issued to Patch. He said the coronavirus mitigation restrictions remain in effect, despite the vote.
"The restrictions that have been in place are still in effect and were not affected by passage of a symbolic resolution,” Dermody said.
Democrats in the legislature also argued that ending the emergency declaration could put federal funding in jeopardy. Democratic Senator Lindsey Williams, in a statement issued publicly, said ending the emergency declaration "doesn’t end the virus."
She continued: 'It doesn’t put people back to work. It doesn’t open more businesses. It doesn’t provide Pennsylvania with more PPE or other needed supplies — in fact, it makes it harder for us to obtain those from the federal government and to coordinate with other states. And it jeopardizes hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding."
Cutler, the House Majority Leader, said the governor is using the emergency declaration to abuse power. "The governor has used the power afforded to him under this declaration without input from the Legislature, suspending state laws, spending money without legislative approval, and his most unfair action of all, shutting down the family-sustaining careers of millions of Pennsylvanians," he said in a statement.
Senators Joe Scarnati and Corman issued a joint statement late Tuesday, saying "a governor’s ability to declare an emergency declaration for months on end without checks in place is not in the best interest of any Pennsylvanian."
They said the measure to end the emergency order is a "responsible approach to ensuring our Constitutional freedoms are protected, while continuing to responsibly address the impacts of COVID-19."
As of June 5, there are 34 Pennsylvania counties in the green phase and 33 in the yellow phase. There are no counties in the red phase, which had the most stringent restrictions.
Philadelphia and its suburbs are in the yellow phase, which retains several of the business closure mandates, including salons, barbershops, gyms, theaters, and malls. Youth sporting competitions are also not permitted under the yellow phase.
State health officials have said a county's ability to move to the green phase depends on several factors, including case counts and hospital bed usage. Data is monitored for at least two weeks before a yellow county moves to green.