In a two hour Wednesday afternoon public Zoom workshop session, the Lebanon County Commissioners took stock of where county operations stand almost two months after the municipal building was closed to the public and county operations were drastically altered in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
After a number of county department heads reported that the public is being well-served and that business is getting done efficiently, although not always face-to-face or as quickly as before, the commissioners turned to the topic of the county going to “yellow” business reopening status on Friday, May 15. This would be contrary to Gov. Tom Wolf’s declaration that the county will remain in the more restrictive “red” status for now, under his statewide phased reopening plan.
Majority Republican commissioners intent on reopening county under yellow conditions; Commissioner Litz says it’s premature
Republican Commissioners Robert Phillips and Bill Ames, along with several other Lebanon County elected officials and General Assembly members, wrote a letter to Wolf on May 8 declaring that Lebanon County, without the governor’s approval, would move to the less restrictive “yellow” status on May 15 to allow more businesses to re-open sooner, thus limiting economic harm from the pandemic and Wolf’s COVID-19 shutdown order.
The county’s third commissioner, Democrat Jo Ellen Litz, did not sign that letter and said she was not asked to sign or otherwise consulted before it was released.
Gov. Wolf has responded to Lebanon and other counties attempting to change their status in advance of the state’s timeline by threatening to withhold certain federal money earmarked for COVID relief, and by stating that go-yellow declarations do nothing to protect individuals and businesses from legal liability, loss of professional and business licenses, or loss of insurance coverage that may result violating his orders.
The commissioners’ positions
Commissioner Ames reaffirmed his support for the stance outlined in the letter. “I haven’t changed my position,” he said, adding that the letter was a non-binding statement of his unhappiness with Governor Wolf and the widespread economic damage the virus and his shutdown of businesses have created.
“Although the county commissioners do not, in reality, have the authority to move the county into the yellow,” Ames said, “I think that that’s something that we can suggest, and as we’ve already indicated … we’re able to handle the challenge, as I think the people of Lebanon County are.”
County solicitor David Warner supported this interpretation, saying later in the meeting that in his opinion the letter to the governor was a statement of the individual beliefs of Ames and Phillips, and “not an official act of any kind,” and that Ames and Phillips “individually were choosing to take that action … without any official action by the Board of Lebanon County Commissioners.”
Commissioner Litz said she remained opposed to a self-declared move to yellow status at present.
“We’ve had information come from our insurance carrier letting us know that if somebody sues us over this, it might not be covered,” Litz said.
She added that people and businesses who rely on the commissioners’ suggestion that Lebanon County should be yellow, and in doing so violate the governor’s stay-at-home order, could lose professional or occupational licenses, and could also find themselves without insurance if sued.
Finally, Litz cited the threatened loss of COVID-related federal funds, and the possibility that this would necessitate a tax increase. Elsewhere in the meeting, Commission Chairman Phillips downplayed that possibility and said that US Rep. Dan Meuser (R-9) and US Sen. Pat Toomey (R) had both “been very supportive of what we’re doing” and that they characterized Wolf’s threat as a potential misuse of the funds.
Arguing that going yellow now was premature, Litz asked her two fellow commissioners “to consider rescinding your support of that letter.”
“I think we’ve been in this position seven weeks, and that’s a lot of time for people to be out of work, for businesses to be closed,” Phillips said. “I think this is more of a transfer of the rights and liberties to the individuals so that they can choose for themselves.”
He pointed out what he believed is unfair discrimination between similar large and small businesses that the governor’s COVID restrictions have brought about.
“There are many businesses that are larger and have very sustainable backing, such as Walmart and Lowes, etc., hundreds of people going in and out [of them] a day,” Phillips said. “And Boscov’s and other smaller retailers, selling much the same merchandise, are closed for all these weeks.
“If we can’t trust those [small] business owners to care for the safety of their clients,” Phillips added, “why would that be any different than the folks running … Walmart?
“Many are saying that they can’t live off their lines of credit, their credit cards, skipping meals, in foods lines, waiting for food,” said Phillips. “These are individuals and businesses who are saying that if we do not do something on their behalf, they are not going to be making it to the finish line.”
Medical basis for going yellow
The medical basis for the Republican commissioners’ desire to go yellow now rather than later also came up during the meeting. Litz asked Phillips if he had contacted any healthcare providers to see what they thought about the county going yellow at this point, as he had suggested doing during last Thursday’s commissioners’ meeting.
“I got information that was satisfactory for me to proceed to sign,” Phillips answered, “both from the medical provider and from [County Coroner and family physician] Dr. [Jeffrey] Yocum.”
When pressed by Litz as to whether he had “actually talked to somebody from the hospitals,” Phillips said “someone from [state] Senator [David] Arnold’s office spoke with someone from WellSpan corporate, and that’s where I got the answer that I felt was satisfactory to proceed.”
Phillips identified the person at WellSpan who provided the information to state Sen. Arnold’s office as Bob Reilly, a WellSpan government relations officer and former Deputy Chief of Staff for US Congressman Scott Perry (PA-4).
LebTown asked WellSpan to confirm the contact and received an email response from WellSpan spokesperson Cynthia Stauffer.
“Mr. Reilly never had a discussion with Senator Arnold’s office about WellSpan’s position on a move to the yellow status,” Stauffer said. “At their request, he did answer questions about WellSpan Good Samaritan Hospital’s current and historical patient volumes related to COVID-19.”
LebTown also asked state Sen. Arnold’s office about the contact, and received an email response from chief of staff Greg Moreland.
“Our office had asked for some information from Bob Reilly so that the Senator, Representatives, Commissioners and others could make a better informed decision as to the status of Lebanon. We did not directly discuss their stance on moving to yellow, because that is a decision that needs to be made on the county level, rather than from hospital administrators,” Moreland replied. “Mr. Reilly and our health partners from the community have been very helpful in providing assistance and clarity throughout the outbreak, so the state and local elected officials felt comfortable with the decision they have made, based, in part, on information we have gathered.”
Ames and Phillips acknowledged that, as of Tuesday, May 12, Lebanon County had not met the state guideline for going to yellow, which is 50 new cases or less per 100,000 population, over the previous 14 days. Ames said that the number is less than 50 over the past seven days, a measure which is not included in the reopening criteria offered by the state.
All commissioners seemed to agree that the daily number of new COVID-19 cases in Lebanon County has been decreasing, as can be seen in LebTown’s daily COVID-19 tracker.
And, the commissioners unanimously agreed that the COVID restrictions have caused financial and personal hardships for their constituents, and will probably continue to for some time after they are lifted.
But, they drew different conclusions from the decline in new cases.
Ames and Phillips said the decrease shows that social distancing has worked and that citizens can be trusted to continue to take measures to keep the decrease going.
Litz argued that reopening businesses prematurely risks a flare up of new cases that could prolong social isolation and end up doing more economic and human harm in the long run.
The commissioners took comments from the public via Zoom.
Peggy Heisler, a hospital employee, supported the effort to go yellow. She told the commissioners that her husband owns a small construction business that only recently was allowed to reopen.
“I think it’s every citizen’s right to make their own decision if they want to go out,” Heisler said. “If they don’t feel safe, stay home.”
As a medical professional, Heisler said that the hospital she works at is not overwhelmed is “completely prepared to treat any cases that would come in.” She did not identify her hospital during the meeting but in a previous interview with the Morning Call had said she is a nurse at Penn State Hershey Medical Center.
Robin Conwell, who identified herself as a physician but did not give an affiliation, said that she was concerned that the commissioners are acting without sufficient advice from qualified experts. Echoing Commissioner Litz’s assertion that not relaxing mitigation efforts will save time in the long run, Conwell urged them to “double down and finish up quicker.”
Commissioners schedule Friday meeting to vote on a resolution
While not discussing specifics, Ames and Phillips mentioned that at least two drafts of a proposed resolution formalizing their position on taking the county yellow have been circulated.
As LebTown has previously reported, 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 Dauphin County Commissioners backed off a broader go-yellow proposal earlier this week, according to PennLive reporting.) The biggest policy action within the Lebanon County Commissioners’ immediate purview would be loosening restrictions on in-person business at the municipal building.
The commissioners have scheduled an online special meeting on Friday, May 15, at 9 a.m. to vote on a resolution.
LebTown has not yet reviewed any drafts of the resolution and has requested that the resolution be shared once finalized, however this is unlikely to occur much before the meeting Friday.
County business goes on, gradual reopening plans have been developed
County Administrator Jamie Wolgemuth reported that he had received initial reopening plans from most county departments, describing the socially distant, responsible measures they will take when the decision is made to resume public access to the municipal building.
“There’s still an awful lot of county business being transacted and going on, even if it’s not readily visible,” Wolgemuth said. “There have been a lot of departments, if not all the departments, who have been providing the services that county government typically provides.
“It’s been a challenge, it’s been in some cases at a reduced capacity, but all employees have been on standby, and many have been called on … to come into the office, whether it be one or two at a time, whether it be a portion of the day, to deliver the services that they all provide.”
Wolgemuth said the plans are consistent across departments.
“The intention of departments is to bring employees in on a rotational basis, have coverage in the office, be able to provide all the services they can, either remotely, electronically, telephonically, any way they can.”
And, said Wolgemuth, “if the need arises that there is a face-to-face transaction, then those would be done by appointment.”
Deputy sheriffs will remain at building entrances. “If there is an appointment that someone is reporting for …they will be screened at the doors and permitted to come in to the offices.”
Wolgemuth added that additional, expanded reopening plans will be developed as time goes by.
While no one from the court system joined the meeting, Wolgemuth said that he had been told Magisterial District Judge courts throughout the county will open on June 1.
An email request earlier this week to President Judge John C. Tylwalk for court status updates had not received a response as of publication time. Lebanon County courts have eliminated most non-emergency in-person proceedings such as hearings and trials in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wolgemuth said that visitation remains suspended at the Lebanon County Correctional Facility, and that entrance by essential personnel such as vendors and repair persons has been severely curtailed.
Watch the full video of the meeting
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Full Disclosure: The campaigns of Bill Ames, Dave Arnold, Bob Phillips, and Jo Ellen Litz were advertisers on LebTown during previous election cycles. WellSpan Health is an advertiser 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. Additionally, David Warner has a financial interest in the ownership of LebTown’s parent company Lebanon Publishing Company. He has no involvement in editorial operations, including this article.
Davis Shaver contributed reporting to this article.
This article was updated to remove a paragraph regarding a possible conflict with Friday’s meeting for Commissioner Litz, as County Administrator Jamie Wolgemuth said she was able to reschedule some things and will now be able to attend.