Virus Outbreak Pennsylvania

Healthcare workers stand by at a COVID-19 temporary testing site March 18, 2020, at Abington Hospital in Abington, Pa. 

(The Center Square) – Businesses, hospitals, schools and nonprofit groups said Monday that Gov. Tom Wolf’s refusal to sign a measure affording the organizations liability protections from COVID-19 lawsuits leaves them feeling abandoned, even after bending over backward to abide by his administration’s frequently updated restrictions and guidelines.

“It seems like, from where I sit, he is more interested in protecting personal injury attorneys than the thousands of businesses that are struggling to survive,” said Paige Wingert, CEO of L2 Brands in Hanover. “I hope he will reconsider.”

L2 brands, a sporting goods manufacturer in Wolf’s native York County, donated more than 250,000 cloth masks at the height of the pandemic last spring, but said the state’s hesitance to provide his business and others temporary safe harbor from frivolous lawsuits is “disappointing.”

“I’m just disappointed because this proposed legislation is a reasonable way to support businesses that are doing their very best to meet health protocols and have some confidence that they are not going to be hit with frivolous litigation, the costs of which and the distraction of which are the last thing that a business needs when it’s struggling to survive,” Wingert said during a news conference in Hanover on Monday. “Im personally disappointed that Gov. Wolf, himself a business owner from York County, seems to have lost touch with what it is like to be a small business facing a once in a lifetime type of event like this.” 

Liz Johnides, who cofounded the Markets at Hanover – a collection of specialty grocers and restaurants in York County – said the businesses she works with deserved better than the veto. 

“This would have offered us some protections,” she said. “These small businesses, this is often their only source of income. So while staying open during the pandemic was no easy feat, they’ve used their best judgment possible to stay healthy and safe and we certainly would appreciate everyone recognizing that.”

Wolf vetoed House Bill 1737 last week, saying it went too far to shield employers without balancing the need for greater worker protections, like paid sick leave. Legislative Democrats characterized the measure as a “gift to special interests.”

“Shielding entities from liability in such a broad fashion as under this bill invites the potential for carelessness and a disregard for public safety,” Wolf said. “At a time when the COVID-19 virus is spreading rapidly, we need to be taking measures to ensure compliance with public health orders and improve safety practices. We should not be providing protection for noncompliance or carelessness.”

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 exceeded 5,300 on Monday, far eclipsing the peak seen at the onset of the pandemic last spring. The statewide test positivity rate reached 14.4 percent for the last seven day period ending Dec. 3, according to the Department of Health. Officials consider any rate over 5 percent “concerning.”  

But Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-Jacobus, who authored some of the legislation’s language, said its the organizations denied protection that will be forced to bear the brunt of the rising infection rates, calling it “immoral” and “not right.”

“Apparently the Hanover YMCA is a special interest,” she said. “The food banks that have been working overtime are now considered a special interest. I would contend that they are far from a special interest. They are the last option to put food on a family’s table, to provide child care or provide counseling and support. One lawsuit could mean the permanent end for a community resource.”

Warren Kampf, senior vice president of advocacy and external affairs for the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, said the bill lets down the front line workers “who are literally saving lives around the state as we speak.” He said the tailored protections contained within – the bill only protects organizations for the duration of the emergency declaration and only for matters related to COVID-19 – should assuage the governor’s concerns about immunity for negligence.

“What we don’t want and what we have have not wanted since the beginning of this pandemic is for any of those clinicians, nurses, physicians, other practitioners in our hospitals to be practicing defensive medicine,” he said. “They are on the front lines and we want them to be focused exclusively on saving lives. Not whether some choice they made will be the subject of some liability suit later on.”

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.