Image: Pennsylvania agriculture officials talk about enforcing pandemic health orders

Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding appears virtually before the House Appropriations Committee on Feb. 24, 2021.

(The Center Square) – The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture said Wednesday it’s been “deputized” to enforce public health orders stemming from the pandemic as restaurants and other establishments flout operating restrictions.

As such, Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said it has responded to nearly 9,800 complaints related to COVID-19 orders, out of which 11 establishments have faced civil penalties and another 149 were closed by order of the Department of Health.

“We’ve been sort of deputized by the Department of Health,” he said during the department’s budget hearing with the House Appropriations Committee. “We took our resources and said since we have that primary responsibility to inspect those facilities now, let’s use those for direct mitigation.”

The phrasing upset Republicans on the committee, even though the department’s role in upholding pandemic orders began last spring. The Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement likewise cites bars for ignoring public health mandates and both agencies release data stemming from these activities weekly.

“Our restaurants are struggling and they have not seen a plan or a vision of how to move forward from here,” said Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga. “Without vision and hope, the people perish. These businesses need that."

Redding also said during the budget hearing that he advocated to keep locally-owned garden centers open during the two-month shut down on nonessential businesses in March and April at the behest of the industry.

“In terms of the decision on what was essential, at the end of day, it was a decision by the Department of Community and Economic Development,” he said. “Inside of that decision, we have identified a lot of people who ended up being critical to agriculture which may not be in the particular code that was used.”

In May 2020, the Legislature passed a bill that would reopen garden centers after big box stores like Lowes and Home Depot received waivers from the state to stay operational. Lawmakers also argued that many residents grow their own food and need access to those products. Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the proposal.

Redding said Wednesday he disagreed with the decision, even though he admitted there was “no playbook” going into the pandemic.

“We have learned a lot about who is in agriculture,” he said. “They may not have ag in their names, but they are critical to operations.”

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