Pennsylvania construction workers who operate in rural areas where they can avoid large crowds are eager to get back to work.

For the past few weeks, industry leaders have been making the case for reactivating construction projects that can be completed while minimizing health risks.

Although Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed legislation last week that would have enabled construction companies and other businesses to reopen, there are palpable indications the governor is responding to pressure from the General Assembly. During a press conference on Wednesday, Wolf said he is prepared to remove at least some Covid-19-related restrictions that brought construction to a halt.

Nick Diehl, who co-owns and operates CWD Distinctive Homes based in Muncy, sought – but did not receive – a waiver from the governor’s order shutting down schools and businesses issued in mid-March.

Technically, Wolf’s Covid-19 mitigation efforts exempted essential businesses. Unlike his neighboring state governors and the federal government, Wolf did not view construction as essential when his order was issued. But his recent press conference suggests he is moving more in the direction of state lawmakers who would prefer to give private companies more latitude to resume their operations.

If Wolf had signed off on Senate Bill 613, the legislation would have brought Pennsylvania into compliance with federal guidelines that view construction as an essential business. So, what then was the rationale for his veto?

“We can operate with a three-man crew and we are out in an open area, isolated from the public,” Diehl explained in an interview. 

“Any project we do now, I’d be taking my guys out to unoccupied sites. We’re not in a factory where we are confined. A blanket policy to shut down construction makes no sense. We have the ability to maintain distance at work.”

Diehl went into business with his father beginning in 1998 at CWD Distinctive Homes, where they now have six full-time workers. While they specialize in building high-end residential homes, they also take on non-residential projects, such as airplane hangars.

Wolf’s stay-at-home order, which was initially set to expire April 30, was recently extended to May 8. The good news for Diehl and others in his industry is that Wolf now appears inclined to allow some businesses to reopen as early as May 1.

If Wolf had signed off on Senate Bill 613, the legislation would have brought Pennsylvania into compliance with federal guidelines that view construction as an essential business. So, what then was the rationale for his veto?

Stephen Bloom, a vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank based in Harrisburg, has some insight.

“Over the past two weeks, the leaders and rank and file members of the state House and Senate, inspired by the challenges facing the people they represent, have taken constructive and courageous legislative action to protect the lives and livelihoods of Pennsylvanians struggling under the weight of this pandemic crisis,” Bloom said. 

“While not all of these bills became law, together, they advanced important and urgently needed policy reforms for health, safety and public welfare. And, significantly, their passage brought the governor back to the negotiating table with the General Assembly at a time when bipartisan collaboration is mission critical to the well-being of our citizens.”

The Commonwealth Foundation has published an infograph tracking Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate, which the foundation estimates is now approaching 27 percent. Government records show more than 1.6 million Pennsylvania residents have filed for unemployment. 

SB 613 was just one of several bills lawmakers in both parties have advanced in an effort to alleviate Wolf’s restrictions on industry.

House Speaker Mike Turzai, an Allegheny County Republican, sponsored HB 2400, a bill to reopen construction, that passed the House 111-91, with bipartisan support.

Sen. David Arnold, a Republican from Lebanon County, and Sen. Camera Bartolotta, a Republican from Washington County, have both introduced similar legislation in the upper chamber.

The Commonwealth Foundation has published an infograph tracking Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate, which the foundation estimates is now approaching 27 percent. Government records show more than 1.6 million Pennsylvania residents have filed for unemployment. 

“The residential construction industry is an essential, life-sustaining business to the residents of our communities throughout the Commonwealth,” Bartolotta wrote in an email. 

“The work provided by these workers is critical to our infrastructure, government, manufacturing sector, citizens and families. That is why I am joining my colleague, Senator Dave Arnold, to sponsor legislation that would ensure these hard-working individuals can return to business while also ensuring that proper health and safety guidelines are in place.” 

Shortly after the governor’s Wednesday press conference, the House speaker, in a public statement, credited Wolf for working with state lawmakers to strike a better balance between genuine health concerns and the need to restore vital business operations.

 “The more than 260,000 hard-working men and women in Pennsylvania’s construction trades got good news tonight as Gov. Wolf announced the opening of all construction projects next week on May 1,” Turzai said. 

“This announcement follows House action yesterday, including the bipartisan passage of House Bill 2400, which I authored. This bill would safely open construction projects. The successful advancement of House Republican legislation to permit safe economic activity under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines made tonight’s announcement by Gov. Wolf possible. Gov. Wolf and I had a positive discussion today; he was open to the suggestion that construction activities could be done safely, allowing tradespersons to resume their important work – much of it seasonal.”

Other Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate issued statements expressing their appreciation for Wolf’s willingness to pivot and adjust his position in response to concerns of Pennsylvania’s business community. The latest Covid-19 news in Pennsylvania is available here.

Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter for the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank. He also writes for several national publications based in Washington, D.C.

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