County sues Wolf, seeking $13M in virus funding he withheld

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf meets with the media at The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) headquarters, Friday, May 29, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pa.

A Pennsylvania county sued Wednesday to compel Gov. Tom Wolf to release $12.8 million in federal coronavirus relief funding that he withheld after county leaders defied his shutdown orders and sought to reopen on their own.

Wolf blocked funding for Lebanon County, where local Republican leaders voted in mid-May to lift pandemic restrictions in a direct challenge to the Democratic governor's authority. Wolf’s decision to retaliate left Lebanon as the only eligible Pennsylvania county to be cut off from $625 million of federal coronavirus relief money distributed by the state.

The county's lawsuit, filed in Commonwealth Court, cast the Board of Commissioners' vote to unilaterally move Lebanon to the less restrictive “yellow” phase of Wolf's reopening plan as symbolic. The lawsuit said Wolf had no legal right to withhold funding appropriated by the Legislature, accusing him of “gross abuse of power” and acting like a “de facto King.”

Wolf's office didn't comment on the lawsuit.

Wolf has repeatedly addressed his decision to withhold the funding, saying Lebanon County had to pay a price for its recalcitrance.

“Don’t come and say you want something from the state when you haven’t followed the rules. There are consequences,” he said at a news conference last week.

He stuck to his guns at a Tuesday appearance in York, predicting a court fight and saying of Lebanon: “They apparently didn't feel they needed the money at that point.”

The Lebanon commissioners passed their resolution by a vote of 2-1 on May 15, four days after Wolf threatened to block COVID-19 funding to any county that defied him. At the time, several GOP-controlled counties were threatening to lift Wolf’s pandemic restrictions on their own, asserting that his shutdown of “non-life-sustaining” businesses was inflicting undue economic hardship.

The local chamber of commerce has said Wolf’s decision unfairly punishes small businesses, nonprofits and others. Lebanon County's sole Democratic commissioner, Jo Ellen Litz, who voted against the county's unilateral move to yellow, has been lobbying Wolf to release the money.

“I’d rather not see every man, woman, and child in our community of over 140,000 punished for a vote by two people who later tried to make amends,” she said via email last week.

In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania on Wednesday:

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BAR FOOD

No serving crackers at the bar and calling it a meal.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board issued “clarifying guidance” Wednesday to bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. Amid a surge in cases in a few hot spots, Wolf recently ordered bars statewide to close unless they also serve meals at tables.

That raised questions about what exactly constitutes a “meal.”

To qualify, the food must be prepared on site and constitute breakfast, lunch or dinner, the liquor board said. Pretzels, popcorn and chips and other snack food won’t cut it.

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WOLF DEFENDS LEVINE

Wolf issued a statement defending his health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, from “hate and transphobia” in the wake of a weekend incident involving an impersonator in a dunk tank.

A man in the dunk tank donned a blond wig, floral-print dress, and glasses during a weekend carnival held at the Bloomsburg Fair to benefit the region’s volunteer fire departments. The fair posted a photo, name-checked Levine and said, “Wonder why so many were trying to dunk you.”

The fair subsequently deleted the post and released a statement of apology Tuesday night, calling the impersonation a “disrespectful parody” and “serious lapse in judgment."

Wolf took the fair to task, noting Levine, a transgender woman, has been subjected to a relentless torrent of abuse throughout the pandemic.

“The derogatory incident involving the Bloomsburg Fair is the latest of these vile acts, which by extension impact Transgender people across the commonwealth and nation,” he said.

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IMPROVING IN ALLEGHENY

Pittsburgh and the rest of Allegheny County, currently the state's virus epicenter, might be getting a handle on the outbreak.

New cases have stabilized, and the percentage of people who test positive for the virus is drifting down, an indication that restrictions put in place weeks ago are working, officials said Wednesday. County health officials temporarily shut down bars and restaurants in early July, about two weeks ahead of a similar statewide order.

“We rose to the challenge," Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said at a news conference Wednesday.

Dr. Debra L. Bogen, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, said that while it was far too early to declare victory, “we appear to be moving in the right direction.”

The county announced a “field response team” that will act on complaints from the public and check bars and restaurants for compliance with various public health orders. Results will be posted on the county website and violators could be shut down, officials said.

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ON CAMPUS IS OFF

Lafayette College reversed course on Wednesday and announced that it won't bring students back to campus for the fall semester.

Officials at the selective private school in Easton said the dramatic surge in virus cases nationwide, the lack of testing supplies, and rising infection rates among young people “lead us to conclude that our community is best served by maintaining social distancing in miles rather than feet.”

Lafayette President Alison Byerly called it “an enormously painful decision,” adding: “I know that this is immensely disappointing to our students."

With few exceptions, classes will be conducted online. Lafayette said it will cut tuition by 10% for those studying from home.

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CASES

The Pennsylvania Department of Health reported 631 additional confirmed virus cases and 25 new deaths. The latest numbers do not include Philadelphia, which did not report to the state.

The virus has infected more than 103,000 people in Pennsylvania since the beginning of the pandemic. More than 7,000 have died, most of them in nursing homes.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher than the state’s confirmed case count because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.

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This story has been corrected to say the lawsuit was filed in Commonwealth Court, not Lebanon County court.

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