Op-ed: (Fifty-)Two weeks to flatten the curve and the Constitutional amendments for change

We heard the message loud and clear: “two weeks to flatten the curve.” Governor Tom Wolf talked about how it was our civic duty to lockdown and fight this virus to protect others.

That “two weeks to flatten the curve” turned into six weeks which turned into 20 weeks then 40 weeks and then 52 weeks.

It has been one year since Governor Wolf called on Pennsylvanians to take steps in order to keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. My heart breaks for the more than 24,300 Pennsylvania residents we have lost. While we mourn their passing and pray for their grieving families, we also mourn the loss of our freedoms.

In the year that has been “two weeks to flatten the curve”, we have seen schools closed, restaurants shut down only to reopen with capacity limits, bars forbidden to serve customers without food and after 11 p.m. Gyms were shut down and Mom-and-Pop retail stores were shuttered. We have experienced economic devastation. Many of our neighbors lost their jobs and their livelihoods.

We expected these limitations to be short term in nature, designed to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. We did our jobs. We stayed at home. Hospitals did not become overwhelmed, either during those initial few weeks or any time after that. And yet Governor Wolf’s emergency declaration orders march on – 52 weeks and counting. Every time the General Assembly tried to bring a voice of reason to the conversation to address the economic impacts of his shut downs or to end the emergency declaration, Governor Wolf got out his veto pen.

That is the reason two constitutional amendments appearing on the May 18th ballot are so important. One limits an emergency declaration to 21 days unless the General Assembly approves a longer duration. The other clarifies that the governor will not be able to unilaterally veto legislative action that ends the declaration, as Governor Wolf has done.

Under current law, a governor’s emergency declaration can last up to 90 days and be renewed by the governor indefinitely. For 52 weeks, Governor Wolf has used this blanket authority to change and suspend state laws and prevent shuttered businesses from reopening with safety measures in place.

Nothing in these amendments prevents state government from being able to “respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth” as the Wolf administration claims. Rather, the amendments – if approved –  simply prevent one person from unilaterally throwing tens of thousands of citizens out of work, barring children from school, and spending millions of taxpayer dollars.

Under the changes proposed in the ballot questions, the General Assembly may determine via legislation the general manner in which emergencies will be managed in the future, but the administration’s departments would be responsible to carry them out within that framework. The executive branch would be involved in the entire process, but now it would have to work with the people’s representatives.

These amendments have not been taken lightly. Public health and safety are critically important. This legislation was debated, amended, and passed in two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly.

I voted yes to putting these proposals before you, the voters, to give you a voice on these critical issues. Now it is your turn to use your voice when you vote on these ballot questions. Please consider the true intent of these amendments and join me in voting “yes.”

Senator Judy Ward represents Pennsylvania’s 30th Senate district that includes all of Blair and Fulton counties as well as parts of Cumberland, Franklin and Huntingdon counties.

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