As impressive as the demonstration was, though, I couldn’t help thinking how easily it might have been avoided. The novel coronavirus crisis should have been a unifying event, not a divisive one. But it may yet be — if lawmakers here and throughout the country can develop the right sense of economic urgency.
Before I was elected to the state House of Representatives two years ago, I spent more than a decade leading one of the nation’s premier supply-chain engineering firms. Throughout my career, I’ve gained a deep appreciation for the great good wrought by American capitalism and entrepreneurs. So it pains me to see our capitalist system crippled and small businesses in my district closed.
I recently spoke with a barbershop owner who, two months ago, had dreams of buying her own building. Now, she is worried about losing everything. A young couple in my district fears losing financing for their new home because the state won’t allow construction workers to complete it. A local garden-center owner is dumbfounded that he can’t sell seedlings and plants to customers who want to grow their own food and beautify the homes to which they are now confined. Across the state, the unemployment rate is now 25 percent and rising — a level that recalls the worst of the Great Depression.
This devastation is the predictable result of our approach to containing the coronavirus. Of course, a deadly pandemic requires extraordinary measures, and it would be unsafe and irresponsible to expect to continue life as normal. Public health officials bring valuable scientific expertise to an unprecedented challenge. But these public health officials are advisers, not policymakers. It is the job of elected officials to consider their advice seriously and then weigh it against competing concerns, including economic ones.
Unfortunately, many governors are abdicating their responsibility to manage this balancing act, handing over the keys to the health officials. In Pennsylvania, this abdication has brought an unnecessary halt to a host of business activities that can be operated safely and that continue in almost every other state in the nation — including areas with much higher rates of covid-19 infection. The result is that Pennsylvania now has about 7 percent of the nation’s unemployed despite having less than 4 percent of the nation’s population. And there are public-health effects to this joblessness epidemic, too. In our county, for example, our district attorney tells me that opioid overdoses have tripled since the beginning of the shutdown.
In the midst of this crisis, many state legislatures have gone home and relegated all power to their respective governors. In Pennsylvania, we are fortunate: Democrats and Republicans leveraged technology and agreed to a rules change that enables us to caucus and vote remotely. This not only demonstrates the power of bipartisanship; it also enables the legislature to maintain its critically important check on the power of the executive.
While we recognize the importance of deferring to our governor on certain matters, we must also work to avoid replacing a medical crisis with an even greater economic one. This is why I joined with other members of the Pennsylvania legislature to pass legislation that would have allowed select businesses to reopen based on federal guidelines rather than the unnecessarily confusing and illogical ones developed by the governor and his secretary of health.
Gov. Tom Wolf (D) has vetoed that legislation, but I still have hope that we can bring long-term good out of this crisis. Some have compared our current situation with World War II. I find it to be the exact opposite. When we entered the Second World War, the United States did not shelter in place — we went to work. Our businesses led the charge, and Pennsylvania produced more military hardware and supplies than any other state.
Today, we still have a greater diversity of business than any state in the union. The people who rallied in Harrisburg on Monday, and the constituents I represent in York County, want us to make the most of this capability — not because they are indifferent to the well-being of their fellow Pennsylvanians, but because they know that getting our state back to work is the surest way to improve it.