A bill has been introduced by Lebanon County state Rep. Russ Diamond (R-102) that would provide amnesty for disciplinary actions related to COVID-19 protocols.
The bill, HB-1969, is co-sponsored by more than a dozen other house Republicans, including Republican leader state Rep. Bryan Cutler (R-100), who represents part of Lancaster County.
The bill calls for the removal of any disciplinary actions taken by the state against businesses or individuals who hold licenses, permits, or registrations, and for the reinstatement of any such licenses, permits, or registrations that were revoked over COVID-19 protocols.
Diamond said there are no particular license holders or businesses in Lebanon County who inspired the bill, although his office had canvassed for any such individuals. Diamond said that his office had asked the Department of State for this information, but they weren’t being forthcoming with it.
They were being “tight-lipped just like Gov. Wolf was with his business waiver list,” said Diamond.
His office is now trying to do the research on how many people the bill would affect across the commonwealth.
Diamond’s opponent in the Republican primary for the 102nd, ELCO school board member Rachel Moyer, said that she doesn’t believe Diamond will be able to get the bill passed.
“While this bill was needed back in 2021, if Mr. Diamond wants to help these businesses now, it would be a nice gesture to give them what he earns with his automatic pay raises,” said Moyer. “Unfortunately he doesn’t have the influence to get this bill passed since he couldn’t even get bipartisan support when he tried to pass this as an amendment on a different bill last year.”
Although Diamond’s current bill does not address the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board specifically, he plans to introduce additional legislation in the near future which would prevent the PLCB from revoking or suspending any liquor license for failure to comply with COVID-19 protocols.
Through Diamond’s office, LebTown was referred to several out-of-county individuals who may be affected by the legislation.
David Spitale, owner of the Commix Hotel in Allentown, said that he received two $1,000 fines through PLCB citations for operations that were in violation of state COVID-19 rules.
Spitale told LebTown that during the pandemic, the Commix Hotel stayed closed for the first three months and “did what we were supposed to do.” When they opened up in July 2020, the Commix again “did what we were supposed to do,” said Spitale, but then he said he began pushing the envelope because “it seemed like it was never ending.”
Spitale said the marks from the PLCB were for operating during December 2020 over the holidays. They came shortly after the state’s contentious decision to close bars and restaurants on Thanksgiving Eve 2020, typically one of the biggest sales nights of the year for the hospitality industry.
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“At that point, I decided I couldn’t stay closed anymore so we opened up,” said Spitale.
Spitale said he thought the state had targeted bars and restaurants during this period. He took the charges to court and had them reduced from a 5- to 10-day closure to just the fines.
His hand was forced, Spitale said, in part over the fact that money offered during that period didn’t arrive until after the COVID-19 protocols had been lifted. He thought Diamond’s bill was a positive for the industry, not so much for the monetary benefit but because having the marks on his license increases the risk his business faces from any other citation potentially received in the future, which could throw the Commix into a “nuisance bar” designation wherein the PLCB can refuse to renew a license. Prior to the COVID-19 sanctions, the Commix Hotel’s last citation by the PLCB occurred in 1999.
“It’s definitely going to benefit everybody if we just start fresh,” said Spitale. “None of us knew what to expect. It was weird times for everybody. I get that the PLCB was doing their job. I get that the health department was doing their job. I’m a law-abiding citizen. I don’t want to fight the system. I just didn’t want to lose my business. I’m almost 60 now and it would be starting over.”
Spitale said that in many ways he was lucky; other operators faced 90-day suspensions and some were scared to open and ran their businesses into the ground.
Many business owners were able to fight the sanctions or fines imposed on them due to COVID-19 violations, Diamond said, and his bill would give benefit of the doubt to those whose weren’t able to afford lawyers at the time and take the issue to court.
Diamond said he thinks his legislation would go a long way towards healing the rifts of the COVID-19 pandemic – which Diamond arguably exacerbated as much as any state official, at one time equating mandatory masking for children to child abuse and also drawing a rebuke from Gov. Wolf over what Wolf called “a thinly veiled attack on the LGBTQ community,” referring to a letter by Diamond in which the state rep defended the “unmasked community.”
Still, the constitutional amendment passed by Pennsylvania voters in 2021 to limit the governor’s ability to issue indefinite emergency declarations is a sign that the people of Pennsylvania believed the state government overreached with its measures during this period, Diamond said.
“It’s over, let’s move on,” said Diamond.
The Pennsylvania Department of State said it was reviewing the legislation and declined further comment. The bill is currently being reviewed by the House Professional Licensure committee.
Editor’s note: This article was updated after publication to include comment from Diamond’s opponent in the Republican primary. This article was also updated after publication to clarify that Diamond said it was the Department of State which was not being forthcoming with the information. We sincerely regret the error. Lastly, this article was updated after publication to include additional information on the proposed PLCB legislation.
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