Lebanon County has decided not to wait for Gov. Tom Wolf to lift coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
Nine elected officials, all Republicans, sent a letter to Wolf Friday afternoon stating the county would move from the “red” phase to the “yellow” phase of the COVID-19 reopening plan on Friday.
In the red phase, residents are under a stay-at-home order and all nonessential businesses are closed. The yellow phase loosens some restrictions on business closures, but keeps in place guidelines on social distancing and cleaning at businesses. Berks County, which shares its western border with Lebanon County, also is in the red phase.
“Lebanon County has met the requirement of your 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 the ICU and in need of ventilators,” the letter read.
“We have heard the pleas of our residents who desire the ability to safely re-open their businesses and safely return to work. Lebanon County plans to move forward and will require businesses who are ready to re-open 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.”
The letter was signed by Sen. Dave Arnold; state Reps. Sue Helm, Russ Diamond and Frank Ryan; county Commissioners Bob Phillips and Bill Ames, Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf, Sheriff Bruce Klingler and coroner Dr. Jeffrey Yocum.
County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz, a Democrat, did not sign the letter. She could not be reached for comment Friday.
Lyndsay Kensinger, spokeswoman for Wolf, said the goal is to save as many lives as possible during the pandemic.
“(Wolf) also understands that this world-wide crisis has placed pressure on individuals, businesses, and the economy,” she said. “Because we have banded together, Pennsylvania continues to weather this storm. Prematurely opening up counties, however, will result in unnecessary death, and not just the loss of jobs.”
Hess Graf issued a press release shortly after the letter was sent to Wolf, informing businesses that her office would not prosecute or pursue legal action against any business that decided to reopen.
“Whether a business opens, and whether an individual feels safely enough in his surroundings to patronize the business, are questions our citizens must answer for themselves,” she said. “Law enforcement exists to protect and serve our communities; we do not exist to enforce arbitrary regulations which rip away a roof over a family’s head or food in a child’s mouth.”
However, Hess Graf said businesses that reopen must comply with the restrictions laid out in the April 15 order issued by state health secretary Dr. Rachel Levine.
The order includes guidelines such as no more than 10 people allowed inside a business, maintaining social distancing of 6 feet or more and wearing masks at all times.
Any business that fails to comply with the order will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, Hess Graf said.
She said she consulted with local law enforcement on the decision and “received overwhelming support from both the individual Chiefs of Police and their local township officials,” according to the press release.
The Department of Health is trying to take a careful and measured approach to ensuring residents can get back to work safely, spokesman Nathan Wardle said.
“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,” he wore in an e-mail. “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.”
Lebanon County has recorded 797 cases of COVID-19 and 16 deaths from the virus, according to the Department of Health. There were 3,055 negative tests of the virus. The county has four testing sites.
Wolf has said a region or county will need to average fewer than 50 new positive cases of the virus per 100,000 residents for 14 days.
Lebanon County averaged 156 new positive cases per 100,000 residents for the past 14 days.
“The southcentral 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,” Wardle said.
“We will continue to assess this region, and other regions still red in the days ahead to determine when they can move to yellow.
“As Dr. Levine quotes the insight from Dr. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, ‘The virus controls the timeline, we do not control the timeline.’”