May 24, 2020

It’s time to reopen Pennsylvania

It has been nearly two months since Gov. Tom Wolf closed Pennsylvania’s economy and only days since he allowed portions of Pennsylvania to start to re-open under uncertain and confusing guidelines.

While every elected official’s top priority is the safety of those we represent, government must not needlessly inflict economic damage. Yet, that is exactly what is happening under Gov. Wolf’s prolonged shutdown order.

Millions of jobs have been lost. Our unemployment rate has skyrocketed. Businesses have closed, many forever.

Enough is enough. It is time to safely re-open Pennsylvania and give folks the option of returning to normalcy as soon as possible.

While some parts of Pennsylvania are re-opening, much of the Commonwealth remains shuttered. The governor’s colored re-opening phases have made no sense and their application has left many people confused and angry as they seek to get back to work.

To arbitrarily keep large portions of the state’s economy closed is a gross injustice to the hardworking people of Pennsylvania who helped create the 18th largest economy in the world and contributed to the greatest national economy we have ever seen.

Contrary to what some would have you believe, the vast majority of those urging a safe re-opening of our economy are not unrealistic science deniers. They are the thousands of small businesses owners, families, and individuals calling Congressional offices like mine every day seeking the option restart their livelihoods and work to return to some form of normalcy.

Re-opening the economy and following the science are not mutually exclusive. In fact, we can and must do both immediately.

The original rationale behind closing the economy was to allow our healthcare system to be able to increase capacity and not be overwhelmed. We have achieved that goal and many hospitals are now re-opening to non-emergency procedures.

In other words, the original shutdown justification no longer exists.

Dr. Donald Yealy, UPMC Department of Emergency Medicine chair, made this point when he said last week, “We can safely re-open not only our hospital care, but the region and society in all the areas that UPMC serves.”

None of the hardworking and thoughtful people who want to get back to work are calling for an immediate return to mass gatherings, ending social distancing, and lifting hygienic precautions.

Everyone wants to stop the spread of COVID-19, and over the past two months, Americans have received in-depth training in proper safety precautions during a pandemic. Most Americans are complying with these scientifically developed guidelines willingly and enthusiastically.

To re-open the economy, we can follow the model doctors and infectious disease experts have put in place for grocery stores, home improvement centers, and other essential businesses. For the last two months, Americans across the country have followed these guidelines to gather, sometimes in large numbers, for activities like grocery shopping, home improvement projects, and going to work.

If it is safe for mega-retailers to remain open while safely and cautiously practicing social distancing, why can small businesses and family retailers not do the same?

While it is appropriate to look at the rate of COVID-19 infections, they are not the only numbers to consult when looking at holistic decisions about how to begin to move on from this pandemic.

As of this week, 1.7 million Pennsylvanians—26 percent of Pennsylvania’s workforce—have filed for unemployment.

While the federal government has rightly stepped in to provide relief measures and expanded benefits for small businesses, individuals, and families, these programs are naturally limited by time and the government’s ability to fund them in the face of mounting deficits.

Government simply cannot endlessly throw money at this problem and hope it will fix everything. We need to get Pennsylvanians back to work.

In addition, other societal problems are worsening as a result of economic loss, social isolation, and fear for the future.

Across Pennsylvania, the overdose death rate is skyrocketing. Across the nation, the suicide rate is also rising.

Many health experts believe COVID-19 will be around for a long time like many other illnesses and a vaccine is optimistically several months away. We cannot sit idle, frozen by fear forever, especially when we have scientific social distancing models that can keep people safe, limit the spread, and continue to flatten the curve.

Finally, this is not a push to put profits or corporate interests above the safety of anyone. To believe so is an affront to the smart, hardworking, and thoughtful people who work to provide for themselves and their families.

The best economic stimulus is a steady job. Pennsylvanians have been united in fighting this pandemic and they will be united in delivering our next great comeback. It is time that Gov. Wolf let us get started.

Congressman Fred Keller represents the 15 counties of Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District. Elected to Congress in a special election in May 2019, Congressman Keller serves on the House Oversight and Reform Committee and House Education and Labor Committee.

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