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Two central Pa. counties say they plan to reopen ahead of Gov. Wolf’s schedule

Until now, no counties had so directly challenged Wolf’s authority to close businesses and limit public life during the emergency.

  • Charles Thompson/PennLive
An inactive construction site in Harrisburg is seen on April 10, 2020.

 Kate Landis / PA Post

An inactive construction site in Harrisburg is seen on April 10, 2020.

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» Coronavirus facts & FAQ
» Day-by-day look at coronavirus disease cases in Pa.
» Red, yellow, green: What to expect in each of Pa.’s tiers for reopening

A small but growing number of county officials are challenging Gov. Tom Wolf’s control of the state’s staged, regional reopening from the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, with majority commissioners in two midstate counties unilaterally declaring Friday that they will consider their counties in the “yellow” phase of the state’s reopening plan effective May 15.

Letters from a group of Lebanon County officials and Dauphin County Commissioner Jeff Haste echoed a similar protest from Beaver County, the only county in western Pennsylvania to be excluded from Wolf’s announced extension of first-phase reopening steps in southwestern Pennsylvania next Friday.

In addition, sheriffs in Perry and Cumberland posted Facebook notices stating that they would not be a part of enforcing business shutdown orders.

Lebanon’s move was especially stunning because until now, no counties had so directly challenged Wolf’s authority to close businesses and limit public life during the current public health emergency declaration, and also because Lebanon County still has a relatively high new case count, with 156.6 cases diagnosed per 100,000 residents over the last two weeks.

The Wolf’s Administration’s threshold for reopening is new 50 cases per 100,000. Lebanon County’s current incidence rate, meanwhile, ranks as the 11th highest of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

Dauphin County — home to the state Capitol — is well over the threshold as well, with a current rate of 106.4 cases per 100,000.

The Lebanon County declaration was signed by its two Republican county commissioners, the district attorney, the sheriff, and all five state lawmakers that represent portions of the county. Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz, the lone Democrat on the board, did not sign, nor did the mayor of the City of Lebanon, Sherry Capello.

Dauphin County’s declaration started Friday with a letter of protest signed only by Haste, who wrote in part:

“Data shows that COVID-19 is a critical issue in confined living areas and with our elderly and immunity-impaired populations. The general population can continue to work and function within the ‘new normal.’ Our businesses and citizens have learned this; however, the governor and his health secretary have not.”

Haste, in his letter, didn’t specifically mention jumping Wolf’s schedule, but that point was raised in a tweet this evening from fellow Commissioner Mike Pries, who declared his support for Haste’s memo, and stated their intent is to follow the same path blazed by their Lebanon counterparts.

PennLive’s efforts to reach the Dauphin commissioners, who comprise the Republican majority on the three-person board, were unsuccessful Friday night.

In their letter, released several hours after Wolf extended his so-called “yellow stage” to 37 counties statewide, the Lebanon officials said they felt their citizens have met the requirements of Wolf’s original stay-at-home order, “which was to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 outbreak and allow hospitals the time to gear up for COVID-19 patients being admitted to intensive care and in need of ventilators.

“The residents of our county have heeded your instructions to practice social distancing and other mitigation efforts, and as a result, our local health care facilities do not lack the capacity to effectively treat these patients going forward. Both PPE supply and the availability of COVID-19 tests have increased since mid-March. These factors have provided our local health care facilities with the confidence to address any upcoming concerns as Lebanon County moves to the yellow phase.”

It was not immediately clear if the local officials has directly consulted any health care leaders.

“We, as the local elected officials, have a vested interest in keeping our community safe and free from disease, and not over-burdening the health care facilities in the county,” the letter continues.

“We have heard the pleas of our residents who desire the ability to safely reopen their businesses and safely return to work. Lebanon County plans to move forward and will require businesses who are ready to reopen to follow CDC guidelines including requirements such as hand washing, social distancing, and masks until further guidance is received for the county to move to the green phase.”

Kate Landis / PA Post

A sign announces that stores at the Tanger Outlets in Hershey, Pa., are closed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Gov. Tom Wolf ordered most retail stores in the state to close in hopes of slowing the spread of the virus. (Kate Landis / PA Post)

A spokeswoman for the governor said the administration said it was reviewing the letter, and its potential response.

Health Department Press Secretary Nate Wardle, meanwhile, offered a vigorous defense of the administration’s approach to the reopening.

“We are taking a careful, measured approach to ensuring that Pennsylvanians can resume work and normal routines safely. Regions are moving from red to yellow now because of their size and geography of the population; the low rates of infection and our ability to do testing and contact tracing,” Wardle wrote to PennLive via email.

“Successfully moving these regions from red to yellow will give us a good indication as to whether or not we can open other regions safely. If there were to be an outbreak in a county in these regions, we are confident that we could control it through our contact tracing and testing plans.

“… The south central part of the state has dealt with some challenges recently in regard to case counts, and there are still outbreaks, including at congregate facilities in Lebanon County. We will continue to assess this region, and other regions still red in the days ahead to determine when they can move to yellow.”

While Wolf’s business closure orders have generated heavy criticism from various quarters of of the state and business community in recent weeks, thus far there has been general, if at times grudging, cooperation from county and municipal officials.

The Lebanon and Dauphin officials’ declarations — which apparently have not yet been backed up by any board votes — may be the first formal break with Wolf’s plan.

According to The Lebanon Daily News, the county commissioners discussed the possibility of drafting a resolution to “reopen” parts of Lebanon County’s economy at their meeting on Thursday, but did not proceed with a motion on the matter.

The Lebanon news outlet also reporter, however, that Lebanon District Attorney Pier Hess Graf did say in a separate news release Friday her office will not prosecute any businesses that wish to reopen and may be cited by Pennsylvania State Police or other agencies.

Graf stated that she received an influx of messages from local business owners after Wolf announced counties in the red phase would be under a stay at home order until early June. People were concerned the additional month under the order would do irreparable damage to their businesses, she said.

“Effectively the governor’s orders revoked our personal freedoms and liberties as individuals,” Graf wrote in her release. “The essential question is how do we as a society weigh the need for the economic success of those around us against the community’s ability to remain safe.”

This table shows the three phases of reopening.

Governor Tom Wolf / Twitter

This table shows the three phases of reopening.

The immediate effect of the counties’ revolt is not too great: moving to yellow does allow more retail, manufacturing and office businesses to open, but they still have to adhere to strict regulations on sanitization, social distancing, limits on the numbers of people permitted in common areas at one time, and the use of masks for any direct customer inter-action.

In addition, gathering spots like eat-in restaurants, bars, theaters, fitness centers and more will remain closed, and public gatherings would still be limited to 25 people or less.

But the the bigger problem, which the governor seemed to address at a press conference earlier on Friday in discussing the latest steps in his reopening plan, may be the apparent loss of voluntary cooperation that Wolf and state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine have credited with playing a major roll in keeping Pennsylvania’s case numbers under control.

“I understand the frustration,” Wolf said, when asked about businesses that have started to reopen in defiance of closure orders.

“But again, the frustration has to be directed at the real enemy here. It’s the virus. It’s not the regulation. And anything we do to bring people together, whether it’s employees or customers or both, we’re making it easier for that virus to actually attack and infect people and we’re jeopardizing their health…

By jumping ahead of his plan, Wolf continued, “I think you’re jeopardizing lives… If they go ahead and do that they’re taking a chance, and I think I’d be a little careful in doing that.”

Courtesy Gov. Wolf livestream

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a May 4, 2020, press conference on Pa.’s June 2 primary election.

Wolf has assumed broad powers under the disaster emergency declaration he signed on March 6, as Pennsylvania reported its first cases of the coronavirus.

In declaring the emergency, Wolf activated a section of the state’s emergency management law that gives a governor broad powers to deal with a crisis. Among them: limiting travel, ordering evacuations, designating routes for an exodus, commandeering private property, and limiting or outright halting liquor and firearm sales.

The law also allows him to control the “ingress and egress to and from a disaster area, the movement of persons within the area, and the occupancy of premises therein.”

That is the section — along with other powers given to the administration to stem the spread of illness under the state’s Disease Prevention and Control Law — that Wolf’s advisers say gives the governor the authority to command businesses to close.

Statewide, the Health Department reported there have been 54,238 confirmed and probable cases of coronavirus in all 67 counties as of midnight Thursday. There are at least 3,616 reported deaths from the virus.

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