No one expects absolute perfection from government leaders, particularly during a global pandemic. However, citizens expect—and frankly, demand –two essential qualities to maintain trust in their elected officials: transparency and accountability.

In March, when Pennsylvania officially reported the first cases of COVID 19, residents and leaders alike around the Commonwealth rallied together to address this new enemy: a particularly nasty and contagious virus. The Pennsylvania legislature worked with the Wolf Administration to provide emergency funding for our hospitals and made changes to our education code to allow school districts flexibility in addressing a new model of learning while we worked to contain the public safety threat. It seemed as though we were on a rational path at a state and federal level to slow the spread of the virus and allow our medical facilities time to prepare for a surge in sick individuals who needed care.

By April 9, when the peak surge of cases hit, the virus was no longer our only worry. A new and toxic political reality arrived which would soon cause irrevocable harm to the Commonwealth and our citizens. Pennsylvania’s executive branch quickly followed the declaration of emergency with power hungry moves foisted upon individuals and businesses that shocked citizens and elected officials alike. The governor’s office, giddy with self-bestowed authority, summarily and arbitrarily closed businesses it deemed “non-essential” and imposed travel restrictions in the name of safety.

The governor’s office, giddy with self-bestowed authority, summarily and arbitrarily closed businesses it deemed “non-essential” and imposed travel restrictions in the name of safety.

Although the Pennsylvania Constitution proscribes three co-equal branches of government, the governor’s office decided to announce major public policy without any meaningful input from the General Assembly. Adding insult to injury, these edicts rained down upon Pennsylvania from remote press conferences, devoid of opportunity for public questioning and with nary an iota of explanation of the data being used to support the restrictions.

Cries from the general public became deafening as people saw their livelihoods destroyed,; while conflicting messages from several different bureaucracies emanated from Harrisburg. Building upon the chaos, the Wolf Administration announced  a waiver process in which “non essential” businesses could beg the omnipotent Wolf Administration to shift them onto the “essential” list.  In the process, we saw certain favored businesses gain advantages over competitors and big box stores absorb almost all of the business from local retail outlets, the mom and pop shops that serve as the backbone to the Keystone State’s economy.

The lack of transparency combined with a random, erratic waiver process ended the unity we briefly enjoyed fighting a common cause and devolved into bitter partisanship. Centralizing power and removing the people component of “we, the people,” destroys transparency and accountability and should never be tolerated, even in the name of public health.    

Pennsylvania’s executive branch lectures time and time again to “follow the science and the data” but the executive decrees lack both. What is the data that demonstrates that COVID 19 is an intelligent enough virus to determine if you are eating a burger with your drink or just there to purchase a drink? What is the science behind allowing state controlled liquor stores to provide curbside service at a time when many mom and pop retail stores were prohibited from offering such a service? What data suggests that there is a danger to providing school districts with the ability to develop plans for allowing parents to watch their children participate in extracurricular activities in open air venues, but there is no apparent danger to gather in protest on crowded streets?

I do not question COVID 19 and I want to take reasonable precautions to mitigate its spread. Indeed, I took an oath to serve Pennsylvania and part of that service is protecting our citizens.  However, the real debate should not surround the virus itself –that should be left to medical professionals– but instead should focus on the role of government during a state of emergency.

I believe that the role of Pennsylvania’s government during this time should focus on public policy that ensures we are not trading one public health crisis for another. What does this look like? This involves identifying and protecting our most vulnerable population through increased testing and funding to senior care facilities. It also requires us to acknowledge that the idea that we, as a government, have the ability to keep everyone from becoming sick lacks rationality.

If we allow, or even promote, economic devastation,  we cease to be an effective government for the people. If we irrevocably interfere in the effective education and social development of our children, we destroy the next generation.

If we allow, or even promote, economic devastation,  we cease to be an effective government for the people. If we irrevocably interfere in the effective education and social development of our children, we destroy the next generation.

Arbitrary restrictions on businesses are never the answer. Indeed, a federal judge declared this week that many of the Wolf Administrations actions violated our constitutional rights. Allowing businesses to take ownership in keeping their employees and customers safe is the only way forward for our economic health. Keeping schools closed and blocking students from competing in athletics and other activities irretrievably harms their development. We should be fostering their academic and emotional welfare, not interfering in it.

I stand ready to work with anyone, including the Governor and our local elected officials from both sides of the aisle to make this happen. Under my watch, I will not let fear become the “new normal.” It takes leadership and courage to stand up for those devastated by this overreach of governmental power. When our founders set out the framework for this great nation right here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, they did not shirk from the difficult questions and neither should we. I plan to fight so that our children have a future that is not clouded with fear, but instead filled with hope and promise.

Jesse Topper proudly represents the 78th Legislative District (Bedford, Fulton and Franklin Counties) in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

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