Legislature votes to immediately end Pa.’s coronavirus disaster declaration

Republicans said terminating the emergency order was what Pennsylvanians demanded when they granted the legislative branch new powers during the May primary.

The Pennsylvania state Capitol

The Pennsylvania state Capitol is seen in this file photo. (Tom Downing/WITF)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

The Pennsylvania Senate has voted to immediately end Gov. Tom Wolf’s coronavirus disaster declaration using a new power granted to the legislative branch by primary voters.

Republicans who advanced the resolution said terminating the emergency order was what Pennsylvanians demanded when they approved two constitutional amendments last month in what was widely seen as a referendum on the administration’s pandemic response.

Democrats countered with concerns about the legality of passing the measure before the election results are certified by the Department of State, and what the potential harms may be especially to low-income households receiving additional food benefits.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The resolution now returns to the state House for a final concurrence vote. Lawmakers in that chamber approved the measure earlier this week.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, cannot veto the resolution. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

House Republicans originally sought to continue parts of the declaration through October, while blocking the Wolf administration from putting in place business closures or other mitigation orders. They abruptly changed course Tuesday and passed the resolution in a party-line vote to end the entire emergency order.

The Senate followed suit Thursday, with one Democrat joining Republicans and the chamber’s sole independent.

Just over 53% of voters during the May election backed curtailing the governor’s emergency powers. Unofficial election results show 2.2 million people voted on the questions, representing roughly a quarter of registered voters.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The constitutional amendments allow a simple majority of lawmakers to terminate a disaster declaration at any time without the governor’s consent, limit the length to 21 days, and transfer power to extend an emergency order from the executive to the legislature.

Wolf signed the COVID-19 disaster declaration in March 2020 after Pennsylvania announced its first presumptive positive cases of the then-novel coronavirus. Wolf has renewed the measure every 90 days since then, granting him the power to waive certain regulations and mobilize the National Guard.

But the order became a Republican target as lawmakers — unhappy with business closures the administration put in place to slow the spread of the virus — unsuccessfully attempted to force Wolf to reopen the economy on a faster timeline.

Wolf repeatedly said the power to close businesses or limit their operations resides with the secretary of the Department of Health. But preventing future closures became a rallying cry as the GOP urged voters to approve the constitutional amendments.

In response to concerns about regulatory waivers still in place under the emergency order — including one that allows retired health-care workers to temporarily return to the field — the Senate voted to amend an unrelated House bill to allow them to continue until Sept. 30.

This story will be updated.

Spotlight PA logoSpotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media.

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal