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Gov. Wolf responds to Mayor Curry's decision on police enforcement of business closures: 'Maybe there’s a political benefit'

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Gov. Tom Wolf responded Thursday to Middletown Mayor James H. Curry III’s decision that borough police must “advise me and get my approval in advance of taking any enforcement action against a business owner” for violating the governor’s orders in the red phase of the fight against the coronavirus.

Curry made his statement during Tuesday’s Middletown Borough Council meeting. He did not respond to a request for comment from the Press & Journal on whether he is giving businesses in Middletown the green light to open in defiance of Wolf’s order.

Some local and state officials have criticized Wolf for acting too slowly to reopen businesses and thereby putting their financial futures at risk. As of Friday morning, Dauphin County remains in the red phase, the most restrictive of the three levels for reopening.

“This is a recurring issue,” Wolf said when asked by the Press & Journal during a media conference call Thursday. “The thing that I think we’ve all got to recognize is that this is not a matter of enforcement of a specific ordinance. This is a matter of the virus that we’re all fighting. You can do anything you want to suspend orders, you have district attorneys who are saying we’re not going to prosecute and all that kind of stuff, which I understand."

Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo on May 9 said that prosecutions for violations of Wolf’s orders related to COVID-19 would occur only in extraordinary circumstances. 

“Ultimately I think we have to recognize that individual Pennsylvanians are going to make their own decision. You can do all you want with enforcement,” Wolf said. “But to the extent that we stay at home, to the extent that we don’t create a lot of situations where the disease can go from one person to another, we’re going to stay safer. That’s the reality, and you can do whatever you want with regulations. But in the end, the people have to feel confident that they can go out to be with other people or shop at a business or work at a business.

“If they’re not comfortable doing that, they’re not going to do it no matter what the regulations say. People do this from time to time. Maybe it feels good. Maybe there’s a political benefit to doing this. But in terms of fighting the virus, I think we’ve got to figure out what’s the best thing to do to keep the virus at bay, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Police are also required to talk to Curry before communicating with the Dauphin County district attorney’s office about enforcement, the mayor also said Tuesday.

Interim Police Chief Sgt. Dennis Morris, to whom Curry gave the order regarding police actions, told the Press & Journal on Friday that he has no comment about the mayor’s decision.

Morris did say he knows of no businesses in Middletown violating the governor's orders, before or since the mayor's statement.

The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office did not respond to a request seeking comment on the legal ramifications of Curry’s statement.

Wolf has said that local police departments and the State Police would enforce his business closure order, although Wolf has said that he thinks criminal citations for violations are unlikely. The State Police's website says that orders can be enforced by local law enforcement as well as State Police.

For the State Police’s Troop H coverage area, of which Dauphin County is a part, there have been 46 warnings since March 23 and only 1 citation. That citation happened between May 11 and May 17. Troop H covers Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, Franklin and Adams counties. State Police figures did not break down by county where the warnings and citation were issued.

On May 11, Wolf lashed out in response to leaders in several counties — including Dauphin and Lebanon — who indicated that they wanted to move their counties to the yellow phase of the coronavirus recovery efforts before the state officially moves them there.

Wolf said the state and its residents are in the middle of a war, and that business owners who open before it is safe and the politicians who encourage it are “choosing to desert in the face of the enemy.”

He added: “The politicians who are encouraging the people who they were elected to lead to quit the fight are acting in a most cowardly way.”