Delta variant in Pa.: How can Gov. Wolf manage COVID surge after voters stripped his power?

Candy Woodall
Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau

The Delta COVID-19 variant is spreading across Pennsylvania at a time when Gov. Tom Wolf has less executive power during emergencies.

Primary voters in May chose to delegate some of that authority to the state Legislature, making it difficult for Wolf to make decisions based on the virus' spread as he did last year when he shuttered businesses and schools when the pandemic first struck.

Wolf's supporters praised his safety-first approach, but his critics and 52% of voters agreed to side with Republicans, who worried about the economy and knocked extended shutdowns and mask orders.

But now as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention again encourage masks, push vaccines and warn of the dangers of the Delta variant, Pennsylvania lawmakers could soon be in a position to fulfill the responsibilities given to them this year by voters. 

"Unfortunately, in Pennsylvania, the Republican majority voted to end the disaster declaration and give the Legislature more emergency management authority which it’s never had before," said House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton.

"Now it will be up to the Legislature to act in a bipartisan manner to deal with any extended emergency situation."

More:Pa. Republicans to put voter ID on ballot after Gov. Wolf vetoed voting reform bill

What happens next in Pa. with Wolf's powers curtailed?

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf was stripped of his emergency COVID powers by voters in May 2021. Now what happens as the virus spreads?

Republicans say they are up to the task and have proven that by quickly developing procedures for remote participation last year, passing legislation to create a COVID-19 joint legislative-executive task force, participating in the governor’s vaccine task force and passing legislation to respond to various aspects of the pandemic.

"The House Republican Caucus has shown we are prepared to do our part to work collaboratively to responsibly and reasonably manage any potential emergency," said Jason Gottesman, press secretary for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff.

Though the Legislature is on recess until late September, lawmakers could mobilize in Harrisburg if called upon by House and Senate leaders because of a worsening public health crisis.

CDC officials say the virus is highly contagious and dangerous, but vaccines do offer protection.

The agency is recommending masks in areas with high transmission rates, including for vaccinated people who can pass on the Delta variant. And the CDC is recommending masks for everyone in schools. 

The Delta variant is responsible for 65% of new COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania, according to Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health late last week said it is not issuing a statewide mask mandate. Instead, the department and Wolf are pushing vaccines, especially for people who have not yet received a second dose. 

"The governor is focused on increasing vaccination rates," said Wolf spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger.

"Right now, Pennsylvania is 8th in the country in first dose vaccinations, and we are deploying a comprehensive plan including local outreach and paid marketing to make sure every Pennsylvanian understands the importance of the vaccine to protect against the serious risks of COVID-19."

More:Pennsylvania won't mandate face masks in public despite rising COVID-19 rates

More:'A victory for the people of Pa.': What's next after Wolf loses some emergency powers

Delta variant in Pennsylvania: See the state's plan

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf adjusts his mask before a rally to raise the state minimum wage at Sharon Baptist Church, Friday, July 9, 2021, in Philadelphia.

The state's plan so far is in line with CDC data, which shows the highest rates of infections and hospitalizations are in areas with low vaccination rates. 

Should things get worse in Pennsylvania, Wolf will not be able to call all the shots, perhaps literally and figuratively, as he did in 2020.

For example, some states, like New York, have ordered all state workers to get vaccinated or get weekly COVID tests, and President Joe Biden is doing the same with the federal government.

Wolf can still issue an emergency declaration for 21 days, but the Legislature will have to vote whether to continue it beyond that time frame.

The governor also still has the legal authority to issue a new mask mandate, even without a disaster declaration. But, so far, he said he's not doing that.

Emergency orders from the state health secretary were not subject to the primary ballot referendum on executive power, so the Pennsylvania Department of Health can still issue mandates if it needs to. 

That may provide some comfort to troubled Democrats and health officials. 

"We are very concerned by the Delta variant," McClinton said in an email.

"Hospitalizations in PA almost doubled in the last two weeks. We need to continue to encourage our family, friends, and neighbors to get vaccinated and to follow CDC recommendations, including masking indoors in areas with high rates of transmission."

A spokesman for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County, said the GOP-led General Assembly is well prepared to address any health emergencies that arise from COVID-19.

Republicans say the constitutional amendments approved by voters in May ensure the Legislature is an active partner in emergencies and that the governor isn't making all the rules. 

"As we prepare for the fall, plans are being laid to standardize emergency response operations, information sharing, and collaboration between all levels of government," Gottesman said. 

Republicans are also now advocating for vaccines and say the state is better prepared this year to handle the coronavirus.

"Regardless of the type of variant, with the high number of vaccinations across Pennsylvania and nearly 18 months of preparation and education, the Commonwealth is in a much better position to deal with and manage COVID-19," Gottesman said.

"At this point, the best way to protect yourself or others from serious illness is to get vaccinated or practice standard precautions.”

More:Here's why the Pa. House GOP is pushing back on state's plan to text vaccine reminders

Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Pennsylvania Capital Bureau. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.

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