By Anita Kulik
Pennsylvanians may soon have a say in how emergency situations are handled by the state government.
The House has passed a bill (House Bill 55) that is now on its way to the Senate that if passed there will allow citizens to vote yes or no on a proposed Constitutional Amendment that would change the way the government handles disaster declarations.
Whether we agree or not, when an emergency arises, citizens look to their government to handle things. Up until the 1970's, the Commonwealth had no detailed plan in place to handle disasters. Then came Hurricane Agnes and Three Mile Island, and the need for specific provisions became apparent. At that point, the legislature enacted law that would give the governor authority to make emergency declarations. Such declarations enable the Pennsylvania National Guard to be activated and for the state to request federal emergency relief funds.
At the time, only natural disasters were contemplated. No one could envision the crisis that hit in 2020. The COVID-19 global pandemic left most government bodies scrambling. Federal, state and local governments across the country were overwhelmed. Suddenly we found ourselves without emergency plans to assist with medical supplies and with a lack of adequate facilities. All of this, on top of the panic and economic crash that has followed.
The federal government gave little guidance and governors across the country had to come up with their own plans to attack the situation. All ordered business shutdowns and told residents to shelter-in-place. While medical professionals and scientists worked on understanding this fatal virus, we all did our part to limit the spread. Further guidance told us to wear masks and limit our contact with anyone outside of our immediate families. Holiday celebrations were put on hold and schools continue to deal with remote learning issues.
Even with the introduction of vaccines we see only a faint light at the end of the tunnel. While our health systems are ready to go, the supply of vaccines is horribly low. We have to wait for the production to be amped up and for the federal government to send the supply. As we wait, our economy still suffers with unprecedented unemployment and business closures.
As we hit the one year mark, many Pennsylvanians continue to voice their disagreement with how the Governor has handled the pandemic. While most understand the severity of the pandemic, many are feeling the strain of continued shutdowns and job loss. What has to be understood is that no governor across the country had a plan to handle such a crisis and all took similar action to help stop the spread of the virus that has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Thousands more will most likely die from the virus and the long-term health problems of those who recovered are just now being understood.
Yet, with the increasing frustrations, the Legislature will be putting the question of emergency declarations to the voters of Pennsylvania.
This bill would limit a governor, any governor — now and in the future, from extending emergency declarations past 21 days without approval from the Legislature.
All House Republicans and four Democrats voted yes on this measure. I was one of the Democrats, for the reason that the question can now be decided by the people.
This pandemic is still frightening. New strains make it even more frightening and the lack of available vaccines can be unnerving. One of my friends may never leave the hospital and another is still recovering. I worry every day about my brother who has MS. He has not left the house in months and like everyone else waits his turn for the vaccine. If he gets COVID-19, he will likely not survive it. People are still dying in great numbers.
This is why it is imperative that we continue to take safe measures. Mask wearing and safe distancing are not political statements. They are signs of respect to our families, friends and fellow citizens.
But as this bill is crafted as a proposed amendment to our state Constitution, there should be no issue in letting the people who have been most affected by government action have a say in how this and future pandemics or disasters are handled by those they chose to represent them in government. That is why I voted in favor of allowing this measure to proceed. It will be for the people to decide through a yes or no vote.