A decision Friday by Lebanon County Commissioners to reopen the county despite Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 restrictions has gotten mixed reactions from local officials.
Commissioners on Friday voted 2-1—Republican Commissioners Bill Ames and Bob Phillips in favor, with Democrat Jo Ellen Litz opposed—to approve a non-binding resolution that shifts the county into the “yellow phase” of Wolf’s phased plan to reopen the state for business after an April 15 order shuttering non-life-sustaining businesses in an attempt to contain the viral pandemic.
The commissioners’ resolution is “effective immediately,” but includes a disclaimer that “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.” Under state guidelines, Lebanon County remains in the strictest “red phase, and the Republican commissioners acknowledged Friday that their resolution has no legal force outside of county operations.
As might be expected, reactions to the resolution are split on party lines.
Dan Sidelnick, chairman of the Lebanon County Democratic Committee, issued a statement greeting “with great dismay” the passage of a resolution issued “in defiance of the governor’s order.”
“Their action has placed Lebanon citizens and business owners at serious risk of legal actions and endangered the health of many of our communities most vulnerable and innocent citizens,” Sidelnick wrote.
“We all wish the county businesses to be open as soon as possible but it must be done in a coordinated, safe, and legal process,” he said. “We expect our elected officials to work together and follow the laws and regulations of the Commonwealth as they swore to do when they took the oath of office to support, obey and defend the Constitution of Pennsylvania and its laws.”
Sidelnick said state and county officials are sending a message to citizens that “you do not have to follow the rule of law if you disagree with it.”
In a follow-up email, Sidelnick said Lebanon County’s elected representatives at the state and local levels “are forcing this issue as a political attack on our Governor and on the rule of law in the commonwealth.” He said he worries that businesses that reopen will pay a penalty for defying the governor’s orders, and the decision may impact the county’s share of federal dollars.
Most Lebanon County business owners are in favor of opening, Sidelnick said, while most workers and residents are not. He said he hopes commissioners will revisit the issue if the number of COVID-19 cases starts to rise.
Elected officials representing Lebanon County in Harrisburg, however, are united behind the commissioners’ action.
In a letter signed by state Sen. Dave Arnold (R-SD48) and state Reps. Russ Diamond (R-102), Frank Ryan (R-101), and Sue Helm (R-104), the legislators said they “stand in solidarity with the Lebanon County Commissioners.”
“We care deeply about our community, and the physical, social, and mental well-being of the constituents that reside within this Commonwealth,” they wrote. “Our neighbors are family and friends. We have heard, and continue to hear, from thousands of our residents who desire the ability to safely re-open their businesses and safely return to work.”
Neither Diamond, who provided a copy of the letter to LebTown, nor Arnold responded to requests for further comment.
Ryan, however, said in an email Sunday that Pennsylvania is at a crossroads,” and “Lebanon County needs to reopen.”
Ryan said he stands with his colleagues who signed the letter, and said he’s concerned that the state Department of Health “has substituted agenda for substantive science.”
“I am concerned that the long-term health effects on our community of the prolong shutdown are not known nor are they being tracked by the department of health,” he wrote. “The lives of our citizens are on the balance.”
Ryan said the decision by county officials is a “science-based, rational, well thought out approach to the crisis at hand.”
Calvin Clements, a retired veterinarian and a Democrat who hopes to unseat Ryan in the 101st District this November, said he’s disappointed that local and state elected officials “immediately started on a path of confrontation” rather than taking a bipartisan approach to the virus.
“Today is just another chapter in their political antics,” Clements said.
“I believe that the majority of constituents desire and expect that they will promote the rule of law and mandates to deliver us safely from this viral enemy,” he said. “It’s long past the time the legislature stop playing the Republican and Democrat game. Elected officials need to strive to compromise and protect the citizens of Pennsylvanians first and foremost. … I pray this will not result (in) any further loss of life.”
Matthew Duvall, a Democrat who hopes to challenge Diamond for his seat in November, said this “is an unprecedented and challenging time” but noted the county hasn’t met the state Department of Health’s requirements to move into the yellow phase.
“I can understand why a small business owner, facing the loss of their livelihood, would want to reopen. I can understand why a worker, faced with loss of income and a severely overwhelmed unemployment compensation system, would want to be able to return to work,” he said in an email Friday.
“What I can’t understand is how elected officials, rather than working to address those issues (as well as increased testing, contact tracing measures, PPE for medical workers, and other items that would help us move into yellow and green), would instead turn this into a partisan shouting match that not only endangers lives, but puts these same businesses and workers at further risk due to the consequences of moving forward with this action.”
Duvall, like Sidelnick, said he’s worried that the commissioners’ message — “that rules and laws are only to be followed when you agree with them” — will have “far more serious repercussions than they may have imagined” down the road. He lauded business owners in Lebanon County who “have followed the guidelines, that are doing their best to protect their workers and customers, and that are urging patience and humanity.”
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, as was the Lebanon County Democratic Committee. The campaigns of Frank Ryan and Calvin Clements 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.