Wolf ‘understands frustration’ among business owners, but points to common enemy: COVID-19

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UPDATED: May 15, 7 a.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Gov. Tom Wolf tore into counties and businesses earlier this week that planned to defy his phased-in reopening plan. Many small businesses are fed up with the closures — which have now been in effect for a two-month stretch — as they struggle to maintain an income.

Wolf said he understands the frustration. 

In an interview with KYW Newsradio anchor and Reporters' Roundup host Ian Bush on Thursday, Wolf spoke candidly about the state of the commonwealth’s crisis.

“Let’s all acknowledge: Yeah, this is awful for businesses,” he said. “It’s awful for the economy.”

But he stands firm, saying that keeping people safe from the virus will ultimately help stabilize the economy.

President Donald Trump on Thursday, visiting a PPE distribution plant in Upper Macungie, Lehigh County, said Wolf is lifting business restrictions too slowly.

"You need to get your governor of Pennsylvania to start opening up a little bit," said the president. "You have areas of Pennsylvania that are barely affected and they want to keep them closed. You can’t do that."

But the governor says he has to do that to ensure public safely.

“There are actually small and large businesses open,” Wolf countered. “There was no preference given to any business based on size. It was based on, ‘Are you doing something that actually is essential?’ like food, pharmacies, home repair.”

Wolf moved 24 counties from the “red” to “yellow” phase last week, and 13 more will join them on Friday. Philadelphia and neighboring counties remain “red.”

He plans to make another announcement on Friday regarding more counties moving to the “yellow” phase, though he did not specify which ones. He did not say if any southeastern counties will be included.

“We’re doing this in the same measured way,” he said. “We have to make sure that we are really doing everything we can, even as we go into the ‘yellow,’ to make sure that we’re defeating this virus. That’s the goal: Keep us safe and keep the ‘dry tinder’ from allowing the virus to erupt into another fire someplace.”

Some Democratic state lawmakers from the greater Philadelphia region have broken party ranks to support bills that the state House is likely to send the governor. The bills would issue more waivers to businesses like lawn and garden centers, barbershops, and car dealerships. 

When asked if he would support them, Wolf said, “The ones I've seen, no.”

“If we do this too quickly without looking at as much evidence that we can possibly lay our hands on, and give the virus a chance to come back, we’re going to be in a worse place than we are in right now,” he said.

In-person school instruction is still uncertain for the fall semester, but the governor hopes they will resume.

“That's the assumption we're making,” he added.

Wolf praised Pennsylvanians for coming this far and bending the curve. 

As of Friday, more than half of Pennsylvania’s counties are in the “yellow” phase.

“Let’s not try to cherry-pick this, say, ‘OK this business can go here.’ Let’s do the right thing and do everything we can to keep people safe, and that means creating the fewest possible opportunities for this virus to spread.”

While following those directives, nearly 2 million Pennsylvanians, more than a quarter of the state's workforce, have filed for unemployment benefits. In comparison, there are roughly 60,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the commonwealth — about 3% of the number of newly jobless residents.

In that regard, is the unemployment crisis far worse than the virus itself? Wolf steered toward the positive steps the state has taken.

“What might have happened had we done nothing?” he questioned. “Would people be showing up to work? Would they be sicker than they are now? Would we have lost more than 4,000 people?

“As bad as things are, wouldn't it have been a lot worse if we did nothing? Wouldn’t it have been a lot worse if we did less, or waited?”

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KYW Newsradio's Ian Bush, Mike DeNardo and Rachel Kurland contributed to this report.