State lawmakers urge Gov. Wolf to sign bill, let schools set spectator limits for sports

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Wednesday, September 16, 2020 | 11:14 AM


A bipartisan group of state lawmakers gathered Wednesday and urged Gov. Tom Wolf to sign House Bill 2787, legislation that lets individual schools set spectator limits for sports.

The governor received the bill Friday.

“You’ve said at press conferences that you want to work with the Legislature. Here’s a golden opportunity to show that ability to do that,” said House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre/Mifflin. “Sign this bill into law.”

Wolf has indicated he will veto the bill.

His administration has limited gathering sizes to 250 individuals outdoors and 25 indoors to prevent coronavirus spread, restrictions that keep spectators away from some interscholastic events. The bill, introduced by state Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant Township, would let school boards ignore those limits and establish their own.

“The premise of House Bill 2787 is meant to empower our local school boards and the folks that they represent,” Reese said, “because they are in the best position to make decisions about school sports and activities, as well as who can attend those events safely.”

Wolf’s restrictions also faced opposition in court. A federal judge ruled Monday that Wolf’s statewide limits on gathering sizes are unconstitutional. The governor said his administration was requesting a stay of that decision and would appeal the ruling.

With schools questioning what this means for them, Wolf on Wednesday said the state Department of Education will release updated guidance this week regarding interscholastic sporting events. He didn’t say what the new guidelines would include.

“We want to get this out in the next day or two — either Thursday or Friday — so that school districts have this,” Wolf said, while answering questions at an unrelated event. “Again, school districts are making up their minds about all of these things. What they have to live in are these broad restrictions.”

House Bill 2787, which eliminates many of those restrictions, was overwhelmingly approved by the Legislature. The House voted 155-47, and the Senate followed 39-11. Legislators would need to repeat those two-thirds majority votes to override a veto. Asked whether he has the votes to override a veto, Benninghoff pointed to the lawmakers standing behind him.

“The fact that you have some Democrat members voluntarily being here today speaks for themselves, speaks for their own integrity,” he said.

The lawmakers gathered Wednesday in the Ryan Office Building rotunda in Harrisburg.

“This won’t be a hard decision for our members because they know they are the voice of the people,” Benninghoff said. “It comes down to whether you support your constituents or you support the governor and his agenda.”

State Reps. Bill Kortz, D-Allegheny, Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, and Joe Emrick, R-Northampton also spoke Wednesday in favor of House Bill 2787.

“We all want the student-athletes to participate in their sport,” Kortz said, “and the band members to participate in their music and the a cappella choir to participate in their singing and all of the other various activities. This is the high school experience. I believe this can be done safely and have the presence of their families and friends to be there to cheer them on.”

Benninghoff said this legislative effort will move forward regardless of what federal courts decide.

“This finalizes the process,” he said. “Why do we have the legislative process if you’re going to stop in the middle of it? I think it only helps codify the work that’s been done and the bipartisan effort and the votes in the House and the Senate.”

If Wolf plans to veto, he must do so within 10 days of receiving the bill or it becomes law.

Wolf said last week he disagreed with giving schools “the ability to override any public health issues unilaterally at your own estimation.”

“You’re going to make a decision that’s going to put a lot of people’s lives in jeopardy,” Wolf said. “I’m not sure we want to give that unilateral responsibility or authority to anybody.”

Speaking Wednesday, Reese highlighted the hardships the restrictions cause not only spectators but also some athletes. The 25-person indoor limit has forced girls volleyball players to leave the gym while waiting their turn to enter the game.

“Applying a 250-person gathering limit to sports stadiums that in some cases have seating for thousands of people simply doesn’t make any sense,” Reese said. “It’s even harder to understand the 25-person limit for indoor gatherings being applied in gymnasiums that in some cases are larger than our big-box stores.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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