Pa. lawmakers gather at Capitol despite remote voting and calls for ‘social distancing’

Many Republicans said they felt conflicted about balancing their duties as elected officials with their responsibilities as individuals to stop the spread of the coronavirus by staying home.

  • By Gillian McGoldrick of LNP | LancasterOnline

This story was produced as part of a joint effort among Spotlight PA, LNP Media Group, PennLive, PA Post, and WITF to cover how Pennsylvania state government is responding to the coronavirus.

HARRISBURG — Despite emergency measures to allow lawmakers to vote remotely and avoid contact with one another, many in the state House did not heed health officials’ calls to stay home and gathered Tuesday for their first session focused on the coronavirus.

About 70 House members — including about 50 Republicans and 20 Democrats, with some sitting side-by-side — were on the floor to consider several bills, including one to postpone Pennsylvania’s primary until June 2. A smaller number worked from their Capitol offices.

Public health officials, including state Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, have urged people to stay at least six feet apart whenever possible and limit gatherings to no more than 10 people. On Monday, Gov. Tom Wolf issued a “stay-at-home” order for seven Pennsylvania counties.

Both the state House and Senate have passed temporary rules that allow members to cast their votes from home. Currently, there are 198 lawmakers serving in the 203-member House because of vacancies and one member serving in the military.

Only House leaders and committee chairs are required under the new rules to come to the Capitol in person, but members were not barred from attending.

Many Republicans said they felt conflicted about balancing their duties as elected officials with their responsibilities as individuals to stop the spread of the coronavirus by staying home, said Mike Straub, spokesperson for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster).

Cutler and Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) “made it abundantly clear” members did not need to attend in person, Straub said.

Rep. Keith Greiner (R-Lancaster) said he attended, “because I have the people’s work to finish and get accomplished.” His Republican colleague, Seth Grove from York County, said it was “important for elected leaders to be on the forefront and show up to work.”

“We ask that of our health care professionals, first responders,” Grove said Monday, after attending a committee meeting. “I just think it’s my duty as an elected leader to physically show up for work.”

Several Democratic House members shared pictures of themselves on social media working from home, including Rep. Donna Bullock (D-Philadelphia) and Rep. Melissa Shusterman (D-Chester). Still, several of the Democrats present on the floor Tuesday were from Philadelphia and the surrounding counties that are under Wolf’s stay-at-home order.

Three Democrats from the hard-hit city read a resolution to honor Philadelphia Police SWAT Sergeant James O’Connor, who was fatally shot on March 13 after serving a warrant. Rep. Jordan Harris, a Philadelphia Democrat who serves as the caucus’ whip, was required to come in as a leader. He was seen on the floor wearing blue gloves and at times holding a mask.

Rep. Chris Rabb, another Philadelphia Democrat, participated remotely. He said he’s taking a “bold” and “controversial” stance: “I prefer not to be infected by the coronavirus.”

“Everyone has to make their own choices, but if you are on one hand supporting efforts of the governor, secretary of health, CDC and not practicing what we are preaching then that sends a very mixed signal to folks back home,” Rabb said.

Bill Patton, spokesperson for House Democrats, said the hope “is that most members will put their own health and safety first and that of their colleagues.”

“That can be done at the same time as they conduct normal House business under abnormal circumstances,” he said.

State legislatures across the country are grappling with how they will continue to operate during the coronavirus pandemic, with at least 11 postponing or suspending their sessions and several others closing their doors to the public, Governing magazine reported. Congress is also considering whether members should be able to vote remotely, as Sen. Rand Paul (R., Kentucky) and at least two members of the U.S. House have tested positive for the virus.

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