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Civilian Coronavirus Corps Aims To Get Pennsylvania Back To Work

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced the "Commonwealth Civilian Coronavirus Corps" this week. He said it would ideally be a broad program to train workers to test for COVID-19 and conduct contact tracing to monitor infection rates.
Matt Rourke
/
AP
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced the "Commonwealth Civilian Coronavirus Corps" this week. He said it would ideally be a broad program to train workers to test for COVID-19 and conduct contact tracing to monitor infection rates.

Pennsylvania's governor wants to attempt a New Deal-inspired solution for getting the state's more than 1.7 million unemployed residents back to some semblance of regular work.

This week, Democrat Tom Wolf announced a still-vague plan for a "Commonwealth Civilian Coronavirus Corps" which, he said, would ideally be a broad program to train workers to test for COVID-19 and conduct contact tracing to monitor infection rates, while simultaneously reducing unemployment.

Wolf's spokeswoman, Lyndsay Kensinger, said it's no accident that the proposed program's name is reminiscent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Great Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, which focused on the preservation of state parks and forests.

"The governor will announce more details in the coming weeks, but the corps would be a 21st-century approach to historic programs like those in the New Deal," Kensinger said.

Still unknown: When exactly the program would start, how many people the state might hire and how much it would cost.

Wolf said he's still getting those details together, though the governor noted that "to have an impact on the economy, we want this to be a big deal."

Wolf expects federal funding will pay for the program, though he didn't say whether there's a specific initiative he's expecting to draw dollars from, or when.

"The hope is that we can get special funding from the federal government for this," he said. "As this unfolds, as we know those details, we will be sharing those details."

Kensinger said the corps would likely start work "sometime in the fall."

Republicans, already chafing at Wolf's relatively slow approach to reopening Pennsylvania businesses and lifting stay-at-home orders, were skeptical of the proposal civilian corps.

Mike Straub, a spokesman for state House Republicans, said the fact that Pennsylvania has 1.7 million people unemployed is down to Wolf's "mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic."

He said the civilian corps was Wolf's "perhaps most misguided idea."

"The vast majority of Commonwealth's residents would much prefer to return to their normal family-sustaining jobs instead of joining a new state government bureaucracy that potentially raises serious civil liberty issues," he said.

Straub said those civil liberty concerns center on whether the state expects access to people's private healthcare histories. The American Civil Liberties Union has recently raised similar concerns about contact tracing programs.

Copyright 2020 WHYY

Katie Meyer is WITF’s Capitol bureau chief, and she covers all things state politics for public radio stations throughout Pennsylvania. Katie came to Harrisburg by way of New York City, where she worked at Fordham University’s public radio station, WFUV, as an anchor, general assignment reporter, and co-host of an original podcast. A 2016 graduate of Fordham, she won several awards for her work at WFUV, including four 2016 Gracies. Katie is a native New Yorker, though she originally hails from Troy, a little farther up the Hudson River. She can attest that the bagels are still pretty good there.