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Legislators have ‘historic week’ in fight against virus

It was, in the words of state Rep. Garth Everett, R-Pennsdale, “an historic week” in Harrisburg that didn’t go by without important, much-needed legislation being passed.

The House floor, where Everett and other lawmakers regularly do the state’s business, was less occupied than usual, with many members communicating from out of their home districts.

The coronavirus has changed the way everyone is doing business these days, but that doesn’t mean the business isn’t getting done.

“I think our normal legislative session is out the window right now,” Everett said. “As long as a disaster declaration is in effect, and we’re dealing with the virus, we will remain on 12-hour call.”

Many lawmakers cast votes on bills from their home or district offices.

Others, including Everett and state Rep. Jeff Wheeland, R-Loyalsock Township, were in Harrisburg during the past week to get their work done.

“We kept our social distancing,” Wheeland said. “There was no hugging or hand-shaking.”

Everett noted that lawmakers often have one or more of their people next to them on the House floor during a debate process.

“Now, our staff members are either at home or in the office,” he said. “It really changes the process but allows us to deal with what we need.”

Wheeland and Everett acknowledged the coronavirus has ushered in, if temporarily, a kind of ceasefire between Republicans and Democrats as everyone seems so fully focused on dealing with COVID-19.

For the foreseeable future, it’s likely only issues related to the coronavirus or the state budget will be considered by lawmakers, Everett said.

State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township, noted that important steps were taken “to aid Pennsylvanians and our health care community during this time of uncertainty.”

He commended lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for taking swift action to address issues.

“The important thing was getting out financial aid to our hospitals,” Wheeland said.

He referred to House Bill 1232, a $50 million funding provision for hospitals, nursing homes and emergency personnel to purchase medical equipment and supplies to meet urgent patient and staff needs.

Other significant legislation related to the coronavirus included unemployment compensation for jobless workers, moving back the state’s primary election from April 28 to June 2, and waiving the 180-day year for public schools.

The bill addressing education provides flexibility for schools looking to re-schedule and fill other learning needs.

“We allow school districts to decide how to fill gaps,” Wheeland said. “All school districts are different. Many don’t have internet access. We aren’t telling school districts how to do it. We are depending on their ingenuity.”

Everett noted that the coronavirus will surely impact the state budget process. The suddenly reeling economy affects the amount of expected revenues used to bolster the spending plan.

“We (originally) thought we would have a relatively easy budget,” he said.

Lawmakers noted they received their share of calls in the past week from business owners unsure if they could continue to operate during COVID-19.

“Businesses and industries were looking to get waivers to operate as essential,” Wheeland said. “If any business or industry has a question on a waiver, their first contact should be their state association.”

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