Less than 48 hours after an online “workshop” where they declared their intentions, Lebanon County’s majority Republican commissioners approved a non-binding resolution on Friday morning that defies Governor Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 restrictions on individuals and business operations during the viral pandemic.
On March 19, Gov. Wolf ordered “non-life-sustaining” businesses to cease physical operations in response to the COVID-19 viral outbreak.
After hearing mostly favorable public comment and making some changes to the original text, Commissioners Bill Ames (R), Bob Phillips (R), and Jo Ellen Litz (D) voted 2 to 1 along party lines to approve the measure, which begins by stating that, “Effective immediately, by this Resolution, Lebanon County public and private sector will operate under the ‘Yellow Phase’ of the ‘Plan for Pennsylvania‘, as put forth by the Governor, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Just below that language, the resolution contains a disclaimer to any business who might wish to rely on the commissioners’ pronouncement to reopen in advance of the governor’s timeline:
[W]hile Lebanon County Government services are being expanded, this resolution is not a binding or directive on any private sector enterprise that operates within Lebanon County. Limitations on businesses still exist at the civil and state level and it is incumbent upon those businesses to know the risks, especially if subject to state regulation or licensure.
Wolf had announced a three-tiered red-yellow-green plan to reopen Pennsylvania businesses affected by his COVID-19 restrictions.
Under the governor’s order, Lebanon County remains on the strictest “red” reopening status, despite the commissioners’ resolution. The two Republican commissioners said on Wednesday that a go-yellow resolution would have no legal force and would be, in Commissioner Ames’ words, “something that we can suggest.”
All three commissioners agreed that the resolution will not protect businesses violating the governor’s “red” status restrictions from possible legal liability, loss of insurance coverage, or sanctions against business and occupational licenses, nor protect the county from possible loss of federal COVID-19 relief funds.
The commissioners heard over an hour of public comment from citizens, local business owners, physicians and other healthcare professionals, and local elected officials before their vote.
Commissioner Phillips also read a Thursday, May 14, letter from Dr. Michael MaCauley, a physician affiliated with Penn State Hershey Medical Center and the Lebanon Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The letter, which was expressing his personal view, was read by Phillips and appeared to support a change to yellow status.
Phillips said he was not able make the letter available himself. LebTown has requested a copy of the letter through a Right To Know request, although no reply had been received from the county as of publication time.
A call to Dr. MaCauley Friday afternoon was not immediately returned.
A Penn State Hershey Medical Center spokesperson confirmed MaCauley’s affiliation and said that any public comments by physicians should be construed as their opinions and not necessarily that of the health system. VA officials noted similar.
During Wednesday’s workshop, when asked whether they had been in touch with medical experts regarding a potential go-yellow move, Ames and Phillips said that state Sen. Dave Arnold’s office had been in touch with a WellSpan employee, government relations officer and former GOP congressional staffer Bob Reilly. Following the workshop, both WellSpan and Senator Arnold’s office confirmed that the conversation had taken place, but said that it did not directly address whether the county should be moved to the yellow phase.
During both Wednesday’s workshop and today’s meeting, Phillips noted that they had also sought the input of Lebanon County Coroner Dr. Jeffery Yocum, a family practitioner who was also a co-signer of the Monday letter.
As on Wednesday, those favoring a move to yellow status emphasized the economic and personal toll that business closings, layoffs, and social isolation have brought.
Those opposed to going yellow agreed, but stressed the possibility of flare-ups of the virus that could result in extending restrictions further and additional economic harm in the long run.
Is there a story you think LebTown should report? Let our newsroom know using the form below.
Help us provide journalism Lebanon County needs.
If you are thankful for LebTown, consider joining as a member. Members get an inside look at our publishing schedule each week, plus invites to a members-only Facebook group and happy hours.
Learn more and join now here.
Subscribe to our newsletter for updates each weekday at 3 p.m.
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.
Davis Shaver contributed reporting to this article.
This article was updated to further clarify that Dr. MaCauley was expressing a personal view. This article was also updated to reflect a response from the VA.