In various ways, area lawmakers have made their displeasure known with Gov. Tom Wolf’s handling of COVID-19 restrictions, with at least four joining in a request for the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene.
“I am honored to join with 45 other lawmakers from the House and Senate in formally requesting that U.S. Attorney General William Barr and the Department of Justice investigate the heavy-handed dictates of the Wolf Administration during the COVID-19 emergency,” state Rep. Cris Dush, R-Brookville, told his constituents in a weekly email newsletter. “I’m disappointed that it had to come to this but also honored to serve alongside men and women who take their oaths of office seriously.”
The letter was sent to Barr Wednesday. Its signatories are led by Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph B. Scarnati, R-Brockway, and House Majority Leader Donna Oberlander, R-Clarion, whose district includes the eastern end of Armstrong County, and include Dush and state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield Township.
They applauded a memorandum Barr issued Monday, directing the Department of Justice to monitor state and local policies.
“In prior memoranda, I directed our prosecutors to prioritize cases against those seeking to illicitly profit from the pandemic, either by hoarding scarce medical resources to sell them for extortionate prices, or by defrauding people who are already in dire circumstances due to the severe problems the pandemic has caused,” Barr wrote. “We have pursued those efforts vigorously and will continue to do so. Now, I am directing each of our United States Attorneys to also be on the lookout for state and local directives that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.”
Dush said, “to hold our state government accountable, ensure transparency moving forward, and remind those in power that they serve at the behest of the people,” it is a necessary step.
“This unprecedented public health emergency has tested our commonwealth’s resilience in many ways,” Scarnati, Oberlander and their co-signatories wrote. “But just as the emergency has tested the resilience of our citizens, so too has it tempted the authority of our Executive (Wolf). Overbroad limitations on commerce have unduly paralyzed regions of Pennsylvania, the Second Amendment rights of citizens have been impacted, and many fear that their rights to worship will remain constrained.”
The letter from the lawmakers is among multiple responses to administration actions this week, many of them coming after Friday’s announcement that Indiana, Armstrong, Cambria and Westmoreland counties remain in the red zone in terms of COVID-19 restrictions, while Jefferson, Clearfield and other counties to the north and east will see an improvement to the yellow zone effective Friday.
The governor’s spokespersons were not available for comment Saturday night, however, after Friday’s decision was announced keeping Indiana and other Southwestern counties in the red zone, state Department of Health Press Secretary Nate Wardle said, “from the time this pandemic reached Pennsylvania, our priority has been to save lives and ensure that our health care system could treat people who become sick, without overwhelming the entire system. Our social distancing efforts have paid off and we have been able to prevent a surge of patients needing urgent care. We need to continue this effort to ensure that Pennsylvanians remain safe.”
Meanwhile, Indiana Republican state Sen. Joe Pittman’s statement Friday that keeping all counties in his district (Indiana, Armstrong, Butler and Westmoreland) in the red zone “is a ludicrous and arbitrary decision on the part of the Governor” was echoed elsewhere in west-central Pennsylvania.
“We are not Pittsburgh,” said state Rep. Joseph Petrarca, D-Vandergrift, whose district extends along the Kiski and Conemaugh rivers to Saltsburg. “Armstrong, Indiana and Westmoreland counties border the counties that will be opened May 8, but instead of considering the low number of cases there, they apparently are being lumped in with the Pittsburgh region, which still struggling with a large number of COVID-19 cases.”
Indiana County remained at 63 confirmed positive cases with only four deaths, according to figures released Saturday by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Indiana had 755 test negative for COVID-19.
Armstrong has 52 positive cases and two deaths. There are larger numbers for Westmoreland (396 positive cases, 26 deaths) and Butler (180 positive cases, six deaths), according to the Department of Health.
“I firmly believe that the lifting of the stay-at-home restrictions and the reopening of local businesses should be determined on a county-by-county basis,” Petrarca said. “It’s simply not fair to lump our more rural counties in with urban ones. Our population density is nowhere near that of Allegheny County and Pittsburgh.”
In fact, the Vandergrift Democrat went on, “our counties have fewer reported cases than other counties — such as Erie and Centre — that were included in (Friday’s) reopening announcement.”
He concluded, “I urge Gov. Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine to reconsider this decision and include our counties in the plan to reopen the state on May 8.”
Ward and state Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, both went to Facebook with comments.
“Governor, if your people read this,” Pyle posted, “you asked me once (in the cafeteria) if I had told a guy I thought you were a disgrace and I told you (honestly) ‘no.’ If you cannot justify Armstrong County’s exclusion from the yellow list, I’ll answer you differently next time. Justify our exclusion. Show your math. Tell me why my people cannot go back to work.”
Pyle’s district also includes two Butler County townships, and extends to Blacklick, Conemaugh and Young townships in Indiana County.
“We’ve done everything we need to do,” Ward told constituents in a recorded posting. “We’ve worn masks, even though at the beginning they said, ‘you don’t need a mask,’ and then they said, ‘maybe you need a mask,’ and then they said, ‘oh, your numbers are better, but now you are mandated to wear a mask.’”
Ward cited Wolf’s statement last week that he would use a Carnegie Mellon University model of 50 cases per 100,000 people in 14 days to be the determining factor on whether a region or a county can reopen.
Ward said the Southwestern region — including Indiana County — as a group had 31.5 cases per 100,000, with her home county of Westmoreland having 41.3 cases per 100,000.
“A lot of what is happening with the virus is institutional,” the Westmoreland County senator continued. “It is happening in these facilities where our loved ones are being kept, where they can no longer see their families. And those nursing homes fall under the purview of the Pennsylvania Department of Health. They need to be doing a better job than they have been doing.”
She said county-run Westmoreland Manor, with 400 patients, has had zero cases of COVID-19.
By comparison, in Indiana County, the Department of Health has reported cases at two nursing homes, and said all four Indiana County fatalities happened in those facilities.