Declaring Victory Too Soon Will Cost Too Many Lives

Marc Stier |

All over the Commonwealth today, people are dying in terrible ways from COVID-19—struggling for breath without the comfort of their loved ones by their side.

Yet, just as we are slowly reducing the impact of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, Republicans in the PA House of Representatives are seeking to overturn Governor Wolf’s order to close non-essential businesses.

That order, as well as the governor’s order to Pennsylvanians to stay at home, is working. On March 23, when the governor closed non-essential businesses, there were 644 COVID-19 infections in the state and they were increasing at a rate of 34% a day. By April 1, when the stay-at-home order was issued, the rate of increase had come down to 20%. It has since dropped to about 7% a day. And so far in Pennsylvania, 22,833 people have tested positive for the disease, 2,097 are hospitalized, and 507 have died.

If the rate of increase had continued at 34% and we saw the current rate of hospitalization and death, today 539,879 people would have the virus, 46,784 would need hospitalization—in a state with only 14,395 hospital beds—and 11,690 would be dead, not including those who might have died for lack of medical care do to hospital overcrowding.

The orders the governor issued have worked. And, in most places in the country, similar policies are not a partisan issue. Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio has enforced rules as strong as those Governor Wolf has ordered here with little complaint.

Yet Republican members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly have demanded that their leadership call them back to vote tomorrow on a bill, SB613, that could lead all businesses in the Commonwealth to reopen.

We understand that people are suffering economic distress as a result of the business closures. Every staff member at the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center has friends or family members who are now unemployed.

But we also understand that there are public policies that can relieve the economic distress we now face and then restart the economy when it is safe to do so. We cannot bring back loved ones who die as a result of COVID-19.

If legislators are concerned about small businesses and their employees, there are many steps they can take to help them. Making it more likely that people will die should not be one of them.

Sadly, some legislators are trying to support votes for the proposal by offering misleading arguments.

  • Some are saying business closures are no longer necessary and we can just quarantine those who are sick. But until we get the rate of increase in COVID-19 cases down much farther and increase our capacity to test people—something legislators should be talking about—re-opening businesses now will lead the virus to start spreading again at a faster rate and soon at the rate it was spreading before the governor’s orders.
  • Some are saying that the economic shutdown will itself cost lives. But the evidence we have tells us that mortality dropped during the Great Depression. Even suicide tends to decline immediately in a time of war—and our fight against COVID-19 is similar.
  • Others are saying that businesses can open safely by following federal rules. But that is a totally disingenuous claim. Anyone who looks at the rules offered by the CDC and OSHA will see that they are only for businesses that must stay during  the emergency. And we are seeing multiple cases of essential businesses that have become vectors of the disease,including a meat packing plant in Souderton where 130 workers have fallen ill. Think for a minute about the human interaction—and the surfaces that multiple people touch—in a retail store, a construction site, a factory, a warehouse or an office—and it will be obvious that there is no way to protect employees or customers in those workplaces. Anyone infected in one place will spread the virus everywhere else they go.
  • Some are saying we can trust employers to protect consumers and workers. But can we trust all of them, especially if the state is not inspecting workplaces and employees have no recourse if they are asked to work in unsafe conditions or be fired?
  • And still others are saying we have a right to go to work if we want to do so. But doesn’t that right end when doing so would endanger the lives of others?

We must listen to reason and science and let Governor Wolf’s orders stand until it makes sense to lift them. Declaring a premature victory over COVID-19 will ensure that Pennsylvanians will die needlessly.