Every household in Lebanon County has received – or soon will – a free mask and materials explaining the importance of measures preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Mask Up Lebanon is a $2.8 million public relations initiative funded through the federal CARES Act.
The mass mask mailing – some 55,000 masks in all – is part of a $12.8 million package given to Lebanon County by Harrisburg – but only after the county sued for the money.
County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz, a Democrat, said the program is a “win win” for Lebanon County.
By agreeing to funnel $2.8 million into the campaign, she said, Lebanon County was able to recoup the full amount that had previously been denied to the county.
Funding was initially withheld by Gov. Tom Wolf and the state Department of Community and Economic Development after local Republican leaders – including the two Republican County Commissioners – publicly rejected the orders and saw the Lebanon County Commissioners formally vote to circumvent state measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The funds were eventually released to the county after local officials filed a lawsuit and spent weeks negotiating with Harrisburg officials.
Getting information on the campaign isn’t easy, however.
Robert J. Phillips and William E. Ames, the Republicans on the County Commission, did not respond to a request for comment.
County administrator Jamie Wolgemuth referred all questions on the campaign to Fresh Creative, a Lebanon-based marketing agency that was tapped by commissioners in early September to head the project. Fresh Creative spokeswoman Tracy Fellin in turn referred all questions to Shawn Rambler, owner/president of ColdTree Creative, a local marketing firm that handled the direct-mail portion of the campaign.
Some questions Rambler referred back to Fresh Creative, however, and Fellin directed them back to Wolgemuth, who noted there has been some negative response to the campaign.
“Expectedly there has been criticism on social media,” he said. “We received a few of the direct mail mask mailers back with some anti-masking comments.”
Litz noted that the entire $2.8 million has not yet been allocated.
The $2.8 million must be spent by the end of the year, according to the terms of the agreement with Harrisburg.
Although she wasn’t sure of the total cost to send masks and promotional materials to households countywide, she said the masks themselves cost $133,650 and the brochures cost $49,998. Other costs included design, photography, distribution, and mailing.
According to an informal chart of expenditures through the project, provided to LebTown by Litz, the largest payment of $299,079.75 went to Fresh Creative, although Litz pointed out that some of that money was used by the agency to pay other vendors. WGAL received $211,135.75 to cover advertising costs, and Mister Bobbin Embroidery in Annville, which was chosen to produce the 55,000 masks, received a payment of $133,650. (Full Disclosure: Mask Up is also advertising on LebTown, in a two month package valued at $1,200.)
A Right-To-Know request for Mask Up planning materials, filed Oct. 9 by LebTown, has not yet been processed by the county.
Participants pocket $1,000
Rambler said his agency coordinated several aspects of the campaign, including radio marketing, scripts, commercial production, and cooperative programs with the county’s schools, preschools, and day care centers.
Schools, as well as fire companies and some local businesses, were each able to claim $1,000 from the grant money if they posted signs to promote wearing masks, he explained. The money, he said, could be used “wherever they needed the funding.”
The $1,000 payments were made per location, Rambler noted. For example, he said, Cornwall-Lebanon School District is receiving $6,000 because they are participating at Cedar Crest High School as well as the middle school and each of four elementary schools.
Krista M. Antonis, superintendent of Annville-Cleona School District, said all of the district’s schools are participating.
“The large signs are definitely helpful as another reminder for students and families who come onto our campuses,” she told LebTown. “We do not have exact plans for how we will use the money, but it will most likely be spent on PPE (personal protective equipment) and cleaning supplies.”
Rambler said signs are still being distributed to “around 120 locations” that are participating in the program. Signage should remain in place through the end of the year, he said.
“Everybody’s been great,” he said. “Some people unfortunately looked at masking politically, whether it was one side or the other. But the schools and churches have been extremely supportive.”
A symbolic gesture
The reusable masks are made of plain white cloth with elastic bands, Rambler said.
“I just got mine at my house the other day,” he said. “I saw people over the weekend wearing plain white masks. I think those were the masks that had just been sent out. … I did not ask them, so I can’t tell you for sure, but it looked exactly like the ones we sent.”
Each mask came with a brochure with guidelines for wearing a mask properly, he said, and WellSpan looked over the materials to ensure accuracy.
“I’ve had nothing but positive feedback,” Rambler said.
Although the campaign is providing one mask per household, rather than per county resident, Rambler said it’s more of a symbolic gesture to reinforce the importance of masking.
The campaign, which was pulled together fairly quickly, “ran as smoothly as it could have,” he added.
“It was a big undertaking,” Rambler said.
‘Mostly good’ feedback
So far, Litz said, the county has gotten good and bad reactions to the campaign, “but mostly good.”
“We are supporting local businesses to provide product and services from the manufacture of the masks to the mail house, and everything in between,” Litz said. “In turn, by supporting local businesses, we are supporting jobs, and sending a life-saving message. Each person has the power to help keep the pandemic at bay by wearing a mask properly, not touching it, and keeping it clean; social distancing; and washing our hands until a vaccine us available. The key here is, everyone, and I repeat, everyone, must participate to be successful.”
She said there have been some “vocal opponents” to the program, “but if you look at the number of people making repeated negative comments compared to the individual likes, loves, and cares on my Facebook posts, the overwhelming majority of citizens understand that we are in a pandemic, and must take action. We are in this together, and our frontline workers deserve our respect for all they do to keep us safe.”
State Rep. Russ Diamond, who has been critical of masks since the pandemic began, did not hesitate, however, to condemn the campaign.
“This was a horrible waste of money which was agreed to under duress and as a petty form of political retribution from Tom Wolf,” Diamond said in an email to LebTown. “Many participants I’ve spoken to consider it a complete joke, although I understand they surrendered their right to say so publicly.
“In the end, I would be surprised if a single mind has been changed by this program. It will serve as a lasting and fitting metaphor for the general nature of Wolf administration policy during the COVID era.”
In a post of his official Facebook page, Diamond referred to the campaign as “$2.8 MILLION WASTED.”
He shared a photograph of his mask and the campaign materials that came with it – in the trash. The photo, he said, “is both a symbolic and literal depiction of my reaction.”
He complained that county officials, as well as $1,000 grants offered to businesses that post a pro-mask sign, were told they could not make “any disparaging remarks about the deal” to qualify for the money. Indeed, the form to request a $1,000 grant included a requirement to enter a non-disparagement agreement regarding the settlement.
“Wolf doesn’t like what I have done by helping to lead the legislative efforts against his dopey data-free policies, so he’s punished the good people of my county as a proxy,” Diamond wrote in the public statement. “That $2.8 million could have been put to much better use than this.”
In addition to the fiscal arguments against the campaign, Diamond also pushed a more speculative – and less fact-based – argument against policies recommending universal mask wearing. Diamond said the policies are “more of a superstition or some weird virtue-signaling ideology” than actual science.
The comments represent a continuation of what some perceive as a misinformation campaign repeatedly pushed by Diamond on mask wearing, such as the false claim that requiring children to wear masks constituted a form of child abuse.
In an event at the Capitol Tuesday, Diamond and state Representative Frank Ryan appeared at an event regarding a sought-after election audit alongside other GOP colleagues without wearing masks or respecting social distancing guidelines. Diamond was quoted as saying, “We are not afraid,” in response to a question about what message they were sending by defying state rules. As the Patriot-News notes, Diamond’s comments come as Lebanon County’s cases are on the rise, with the county currently having the seventh highest rate of new cases over the last 14 days per 100,000 residents according to Spotlight PA’s statewide COVID-19 tracker.
As LebTown has previously reported, other members of the GOP categorically disagree with Diamond’s assessment on the efficacy of mask wearing as public policy. While Diamond has sought to undermine public confidence in mask wearing as a mitigation measure, U.S. Senator Pat Toomey and U.S. Congressman Dan Meuser have endorsed it, as have virtually all public health institutions in the country.
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Davis Shaver contributed reporting to this article.
Full Disclosure: The campaigns of Bill Ames, Bob Phillips, and Jo Ellen Litz were advertisers on LebTown during previous election cycles. Ames Home Services is a current advertiser on LebTown. 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.