HARRISBURG — Relief is headed to businesses, schools, renters and people behind on their bills due to the COVID pandemic and the economic crisis it caused.
The General Assembly voted unanimously in both chambers Friday to send Gov. Tom Wolf legislation spelling out how to spend $912 million from the second round of federal COVID relief.
Wolf signed the legislation into law Friday afternoon.
“Business owners and employees have worked hard to protect their customers and their communities during this pandemic,” Wolf said. “But the pandemic has been hard on businesses and they need and deserve our support,” Wolf said.
Legislative leaders agreed.
“There’s no secret there’s a lot of struggling businesses out there,” said House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County. “We’re trying to get them back on their feet.”
The plan also calls for spending $569.8 million on rental and utility assistance and $197 million on education programs.
“It’s important to understand why it’s so important to get that out,” said state Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York County, the chairman of the House appropriations committee. “If these utilities don’t get reimbursed for the utility costs that many people have been unable to pay due to being unemployed by this administration, that cost goes back onto all utility customers,” he said.
The education funding includes $150 million to establish a grant program for non-public schools that have been impacted by the epidemic but received other government aid to cope. The remaining $47 million in school funding would be split between career and technical programs, community colleges, the State System of Higher Education and private residential rehabilitative institutions.
“It is worth pointing out that this is the very first bill to reach the governor in this legislative session and should be signed into law as Act 1 of 2021. That clearly shows the importance of the measure and our efforts to bring relief to the people of Pennsylvania,” Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana County, the prime sponsor of the legislation.
“While this was a contentious week in Harrisburg, it is good to see a bipartisan product being delivered to Pennsylvanians, one that not only addresses for negative impacts of COVID-19 but also provides important protections to ensure that federal stimulus support to our citizens is not subjected to taxation by the Commonwealth,” he said.
Amendment proposal on emergency powers passes
Moments after voting to approve the plan to spend COVID relief dollars, the state House voted Friday to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot that would limit how long the governor can keep emergency declarations in place.
The measure passed the state House 116-86. The state Senate approved the measure by a vote of 28-20 last week. The proposal had also been approved in both chambers last legislative session so it will be on the ballot in May.
Under current law, a governor’s emergency declaration can last up to 90 days and be renewed by the governor indefinitely. Under Senate Bill 2, the emergency declaration would be limited to 21 days unless the General Assembly approved a longer duration, said Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland County, the author of the legislation. It also clarifies the legislature is not required to present the resolution ending the declaration to the governor for his consideration, she said.
“This amendment will give power back to the people who elect us to represent them,” she said.
In the debate on the measure Friday morning, state Rep. Seth Grove, R-York County, said that state lawmakers all over the country are considering similar bills over concerns about the way governors have used emergency powers to respond to the pandemic.
Rep. Margo Davidson, D-Delaware County, called the proposal “a power grab” by a “gerrymandered Republican-majority Legislature.”
The governor has argued that the change won’t prevent the administration from taking many of the mitigation actions like ordering mask-wearing and limiting occupancy in businesses because those measures would be covered by public health orders.
The pandemic, by the numbers
With new case counts decreasing over the last few days, the nation marked the second-worst day of the pandemic for fatalities Thursday.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday that the nation had 5,189 deaths a day earlier, the highest figure since April 15, when 6,489 people succumbed to COVID-19. The day’s total pushed the total death count over 450,000, 17 days after crossing the 400,000 threshold.
The surge in deaths falls during a period when daily new cases have been declining. In the 12 days since Jan. 24, the nation has seen fewer than 150,000 new cases eight times. However, the CDC has reported more than 3,000 fatalities a day 11 times in the 16 days since Jan. 20.
This increase in fatalities falls a few weeks after a surge in new cases. During the 12-day stretch from Jan. 5 to Jan. 16, the CDC reported more than 200,000 new cases 11 times, including one day with more than 314,000 new cases on Jan. 8.
Statewide hospital readiness
The strain on Pennsylvania hospitals continues to ease. Hospitals in the state has 3,041 COVID-19 patients in hospital care.
That represents a steep decline in recent weeks. As recently as Jan. 17 — less than three weeks ago — the state Department of Health reported 4,582 COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals in the state, about 50% more than the latest figure.
Hospitals had 644 patients in intensive care and 371 on ventilators. The Department of Health reported a daily average of 712 ICU beds available over the last two weeks, the highest figure since Dec. 11.
The 14-day rolling average for ventilator use was 426.9 per day. Average ventilator demand has not been that low since Dec. 1
THE HERALD Staff contributed to this story.