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ICYMI: Toomey in PG: How to Restart the Pennsylvania Economy

May 1, 2020

Washington, D.C. - In case you missed it, U.S. Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) wrote in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this morning to lay out his #PAStartsUpSafely framework to safely and gradually reopen Pennsylvania's economy.

His framework is available in its entirety here.

How to Restart the Pennsylvania Economy
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
By Pat Toomey
May 1, 2020
Online here

2020 was shaping up to be a great year for Garman Builders. The custom home builder in Lancaster County had recently expanded to employ nearly 100 workers and had planned to build 200 new homes this year. Then the COVID-19 outbreak happened. Garman was forced to shut down and send its employees home even though workers in construction, like most outdoor-centric professions, can maintain social distance on job sites.

Many business closures, forced by state governments, were painful but necessary to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent hospitals from becoming overburdened with critically ill patients. In Pennsylvania, the good news is that the worst is likely behind us.

According to the influential Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation COVID-19 projection model, demand for hospital services peaked on April 16 when 40% of beds were empty and 70% of ventilators went unused. Provided that commonsense social distancing measures remain in place for the foreseeable future, there will be no New York-like catastrophe in the commonwealth.

Now as we begin to re-emerge from this pandemic, lawmakers must keep in mind the old medical maxim: First, do no harm. That adage applies not just to public health, but also to our economy.

The decision to slow the spread of COVID-19 is causing substantial economic harm. Nationally, over 20 million people are out of work. One in every 5 Pennsylvania workers have filed for unemployment. An economic contraction rivaling the Great Depression is underway. Congress responded to this sobering reality by passing several bills that gave an unprecedented $3 trillion in aid to workers, employers of all sizes, health care systems and states.

But government spending is not a substitute for an economy. It's also not sustainable. A society cannot shut down commerce for an extended period without inducing very severe consequences. Deaths of despair will rise. Our standard of living will fall. Food shortages, and even social unrest, are unwelcome possibilities, too.

I was pleased Gov. Tom Wolf is thinking about these issues and released a plan to reopen the economy last week. I also offered a framework for reopening Pennsylvania that, similar to Mr. Wolf's plan, contemplates a gradual, phased and local resumption of economic activity based on data analysis and feedback I've collected from county officials, employers, workers and health care providers. My framework also includes several recommendations for improving upon Mr. Wolf's plan.

Here's how to reopen our economy safely.

First, our guiding principle should be that a business can reopen only if it can keep its employees and customers safe. Second, strict precautions to protect vulnerable, at-risk populations, such as those who live at nursing homes and assisted living centers, ought to remain in place. Finally, reopening should occur in the counties and regions with the lowest or consistently declining numbers of COVID-19 cases.

With these principles in mind, there are employers that can safely resume activity now. Any outdoor-centric business in the commonwealth capable of adhering to safety measures and social distancing practices, like Garman Builders, ought to be permitted to reopen. In having shut down virtually all construction - including many road and transportation projects - Pennsylvania was an outlier.

Second, nearly two-thirds of Pennsylvania counties have very few cases of COVID-19 or have seen significant declines over the past two weeks. Employers in these places can safely reopen provided that they meet the objective criteria provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for protecting their employees and customers. There's no scientific justification for keeping all workers at home in Bedford County, which has averaged slightly more than one COVID-19 case per day for the past two weeks, while allowing people in Lawrence County (one COVID-19 case per day) to return to work.

While restaurants, taverns and places that can't accommodate social distancing will need to remain partially shuttered, for now, numerous factories and professional service firms in low-COVID-19 counties could reopen by providing workers with space to operate safely.

There are other sectors of our economy that could reopen, too. Allowing underutilized hospitals and health care providers to resume medically necessary surgeries and procedures like hip replacements and cancer screenings would alleviate pain in suffering patients, prevent premature deaths and send an important economic lifeline to cash-strapped health care systems and their employees.

The uncomfortable truth is that the virus will likely continue to spread - shutdown or not - just as other respiratory diseases spread. However, with both the safety protocols that I have laid out, which most Pennsylvanians will happily comply with, and having vulnerable people (older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions) staying home, we can avoid a rapid outbreak that threatens hospital capacity. These steps will allow younger, healthier workers who are unlikely to become seriously ill to return to work.

When this happens, circumstances will not be as they were as recently as January. Workers and customers will have to wear masks and gloves. Temperature-taking should become a staple of workplaces. More robust testing, isolating the infected and contact tracing must continue to be scaled up and deployed as quickly as possible. And, most important, commonsense social distancing practices, which keep people at least 6 feet apart from one another, must continue.

We should also keep in mind that the United States is becoming better equipped to deal with COVID-19 now than we were when the virus first arrived earlier this year. Doctors and researchers have a better understanding of the disease and how to treat it. Our testing capacity, while not yet universal, is growing daily. And there appears to be progress on therapeutics to treat COVID-19.

The extreme measures that state governments took to prevent hospitals from being overrun were necessary and helped saved lives. We can continue to protect the public and minimize the loss of life while starting the process of reopening the economy if we follow commonsense safety protocols. The time to begin that process is now.

Pat Toomey is the junior U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.