By Lowman S. Henry
Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal and American Radio Journal
Using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse rather than as a reason, Governor Tom Wolf has engaged in a nearly year-long war on business in Pennsylvania. His policies have done more to destroy businesses and jobs than to destroy the Coronavirus.
Wolf’s first volley came during the early days of the pandemic when, without consulting either the legislature or the state’s business community, the governor abruptly ordered the closing of all but “essential” businesses. The administration then unleashed a tidal wave of confusion and contradiction over which businesses were “essential,” clear answers to which have yet to be provided.
Making matter worse, allegations of political interference have arisen suggesting certain businesses were deemed “essential,” or given waivers based on connections rather than their actual function. Lame-duck Auditor General Eugene DePasquale was supposedly conducting an audit of the process, but focused instead on his failed bid for a mid-state congressional seat and has yet to provide definitive answers.
Heading into the summer, Wolf continued to hammer businesses, especially the hospitality industry with onerous restrictions on occupancy at bars and restaurants. The governor continued to claim his actions were based on “science,” but he has refused to honor Right to Know requests for that data, going so far as to fight the release of information in court.
Many businesses have not attempted to re-open or have severely limited their activity due to concerns over lawsuits arising from the pandemic. For many, especially small businesses, the fear of following all precautionary recommendations but still being sued in the event a patron contracts the virus is an insurmountable roadblock to re-opening. Ever-changing and frequently contradictory recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health have further stoked fears of legal action.
To protect businesses, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a targeted, temporary, and necessary response to the threat of frivolous lawsuits by Pennsylvania’s litigation Industry, which, the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association (PMA) points out, views COVID-19 as a business opportunity.
Governor Wolf vetoed the bill.
According to PMA, the legislation would have “protected the manufacturers that have re-tooled to meet the dire need for personal protective equipment and the medical professionals who are on the front lines caring for COVID-19 patients. The liability protections included in the bill would have extended to Pennsylvania’s small businesses, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, childcare centers, universities, colleges, farms, and local governments.
After paying lip service to the importance of family farms, the bill vetoed by Wolf would specifically have provided a lifeline to family farmers. The provision, sponsored by State Representative Barbara Gleim of Cumberland County, would have provided no-fault limited liability protections for farmers offering agri-tourism events, such as the corn mazes that pop up every Fall. Many family farms depend on this supplemental income to remain financially viable.
All the above now remain at risk – and many remain closed – because Governor Wolf chose to protect the litigation industry over them. The impact will be the permanent closing of many small and mid-sized businesses and a corresponding loss of jobs.
Nationwide, the general public understands the importance of liability protection. The Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform (PCCJR) points to a survey conducted by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform that shows eight in ten Americans believe employers who follow the latest government health guidelines should be protected from COVID-19 lawsuits. Support for such measures cuts across partisan lines with strong majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents agreeing that, except for gross negligence, such protections should be provided.
In the wake of Governor Wolf’s veto of this vital, common-sense protection for businesses PCCJR’s executive director Curt Schroder called upon Congress to pass what he termed “timely, temporary, and targeted liability protections before the end of the year.”
Turning to congress is a sound strategy because, since the beginning of the pandemic, Governor Tom Wolf has demonstrated a complete unwillingness to work with the state’s business community. Worse, his every action has been to trample especially small businesses as his policies continue to kill more jobs than the virus kills people.