Lebanon County’s state legislators as well as a handful of other Republican elected officials released a joint letter to Governor Tom Wolf on Friday evening, May 8, informing him of a plan to move the county to the “Yellow Phase” on Friday, May 15.
As Spotlight PA explains, the Yellow Phase as defined by Gov. Wolf sees the easing of some restrictions and allows more businesses to open, while mitigation efforts remain in effect and closures of schools, gyms, hair and nail salons and limitations around large gatherings remain in place.
The letter was signed by State Sen. Dave Arnold (R-SD48), State Rep. Russ Diamond (R-102), State Rep. Frank Ryan (R-101), State Rep. Sue Helm (R-104), Lebanon County Commissioner Bill Ames (R), Lebanon County Commissioner Bob Phillips (R), Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf (R), Lebanon County Coroner Dr. Jeffery Yocum (R), and Lebanon County Sheriff Bruce Klingler (R).
Find a copy of the letter at the bottom of this article. It reads in part, “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 states that these factors along with increasing supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 tests “have provided our local healthcare facilities with the confidence to address any upcoming concerns as Lebanon County moves to the Yellow Phase.”
LebTown contacted WellSpan Health on Friday evening, and again on Saturday morning, and asked whether the healthcare provider’s input had been sought or if advance notice of the decision to take Lebanon County into the Yellow Phase had been provided. No response had been received as of noon Saturday. (Update: WellSpan did end up sending a statement Saturday afternoon but did not answer the questions LebTown had asked. We’ve included their statement in full below.)
LebTown also contacted press officials at the Lebanon Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Saturday morning asking the same questions and had not received a response as of noon Saturday.
It is not yet clear how the letter will translate into governance at the county level.
DA Hess Graf followed up the joint letter with a press release distributed nearly simultaneously in which she said that her office would not prosecute or pursue legal action against any local business that wished to reopen, as long as they complied with the administration’s April 15 order (which Rep. Diamond had claimed was secretly changed earlier this week, an assertion that the DOH said was incorrect and that LebTown has found no evidence to support). The April 15 order requires businesses to take a number of mitigation steps, including requiring all customers to wear masks unless they cannot wear one due to a medical condition.
The release stated that the DA had consulted with local law enforcement and received “overwhelming support” from individual Chiefs of Police, as well as from township officials.
“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,” said Hess Graf in the release. “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.”
“Our police officers have tough enough jobs without the added duty of persecuting local small business.”
Hess Graf said in an interview with LebTown on Friday night that she had also held a conversation with the local Pennsylvania State Police station commander to explain her office’s position. “What PSP is going do is they’re urging compliance, they’re going to educate the public, they’re going to respond if they get a call, and they’re going to urge compliance with the April 15 order.”
It is not clear what recourse the governor’s administration or other parts of the state government would have in this scenario. Businesses and individuals with professional licenses could be in danger of having those revoked. Furthermore, business and individuals could be exposed to additional liability if they choose to operate in contradiction of the state’s guidelines.
The Lebanon County Commissioners have not taken any formal stance on the issue yet. On Thursday, Commissioner Ames requested that the body consider an action to enable “returning to work in an expanded way.”
In response, County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz (D) said that she was “not ready to move ahead with that,” and cited the state’s goal of counties seeing 50 or fewer new cases over a 14 day period, per 100,000 residents. LebTown has been tracking this metric, along with those of surrounding counties and the “southcentral region” at large. Lebanon County’s curve can be seen going down, although the metric for Lebanon County is still more than triple what the state had said is an acceptable level for reopening.
This metric is not the only criteria being used by the state to determine reopening status, with the administration saying that it would be considering PPE availability, testing capacity, and contact tracing capability among other factors.
Commissioner Phillips suggested that before taking an action on Ame’s proposal, the body should confer with local healthcare providers. “Consider what would happen if we overburden and if it goes the wrong way,” he said at Thursday morning’s commissioners meeting.
A discussed “workshop” with healthcare providers is still scheduled at present for Wednesday, May 13.
There is not an action that the commissioners could take to allow reopening of businesses, outside of issuing an official message on the situation as the Dauphin County Commissioners did on Friday. The biggest policy action within the Lebanon County Commissioners’ immediate purview would be loosening restrictions on in-person business at the municipal building.
Although plenty of counties have expressed frustration with the Wolf administration’s reopening plan, the combination of the joint letter and the DA’s announcement are among the state’s most coordinated and broadest efforts to declare a county’s status changed without the governor’s consent.
Beaver County’s District Attorney had announced earlier Friday that he would not prosecute businesses who follow the Yellow Phase guidelines. Asked about this during a Friday afternoon press conference, Wolf said, “If they go ahead and do that, they’re taking a chance, taking a chance with the lives of the citizens of Beaver County. I think I’d be a little careful in doing that.” The Beaver County Commissioners also assented to this decision, with Beaver County Commissioner Tony Amadio comparing the action to historic western Pennsylvania rebellions.
York County’s District Attorney issued a statement on Friday in which he said that law enforcement had been directed to not issue any such citations regarding the governor’s orders. According to the York Daily Record, Adams and York county officials sent Wolf a letter requesting they be allowed to transition into the Yellow Phase on Friday, May 15.
Dauphin County Commissioner Mike Pries also tweeted Friday night that Dauphin County would join Lebanon County in moving to the Yellow Phase on May 15, but that intent had not been declared in the earlier Dauphin County message and would require another vote in order to be considered an official stance.
Letter from elected Republican officials in Lebanon County to Gov. Tom Wolf
Release from Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf
During the COVID-19 pandemic, WellSpan’s focus is on the health and safety of the communities we serve. Everyone has done a great job in coming together to help slow the spread of this disease. At whatever point in time our communities begin resuming new day-to-day routines, we will urge vigilance in protecting one another. It’s important we all continue to practice social distancing, wear a mask or cloth face covering when out in public, wash our hands thoroughly, and routinely clean and disinfect surfaces.
We also encourage everyone to practice good mental and emotional health. It’s normal to feel anxious during stressful times. Now, more than ever, it’s important to take care of yourself – including your physical, mental and emotional health. For mental health tips and resources, and other important information related to COVID-19, visit www.WellSpan.org/coronavirus.
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Full Disclosure: The campaigns of Bill Ames, Dave Arnold, Bob Phillips, and Jo Ellen Litz were advertisers on LebTown during the previous election cycle. Ames Home Services, WellSpan Health, and Friends of Frank Ryan are advertisers on LebTown at present. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here.
Chris Coyle contributed reporting to this article.