by Christen Smith
Officials from several counties across central Pennsylvania said over the weekend they likely will lift pandemic restrictions against Gov. Tom Wolf’s orders.
The news follows the governor’s decision Friday to transition 13 counties in the southwestern region of the state – including the Pittsburgh metro area – to the yellow phase of his economic reopening plan after showing signs of slowing community spread and ramped up testing and contact tracing abilities.
The yellow, or “caution” phase, means businesses can reopen if they practice social distancing and provide masks and other personal protective equipment for their employees. Day cares can resume operations, too, with infection control measures in place. Wolf said Allegheny, Armstrong, Bedford, Blair, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Fulton, Greene, Indiana, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland can transition from red to yellow on May 15.
But some of the 30 counties still in the red phase – which includes widespread businesses closures and stay at home orders until at least June 4 – want out. Officials in Adams, Berks, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Juniatia, Lebanon, Mifflin, Perry and Schuylkill counties have mentioned their various plans to move to the yellow phase without the governor’s permission.
“We need to do this right. There is a world of difference between action, and effective action; to be effective, it has to be legal,” said Cumberland County Commissioner Gary Eichelberger in a news release Saturday. “We understand the frustration of our business owners and residents, and we are extremely sympathetic to their plight.”
Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, said his district stretches across four central Pennsylvania counties who want to begin reopening, despite some falling short of the Department of Health’s guidelines for progressing into yellow. Notably, new case counts in many of the counties pushing to reopen total above the 50 per 100,000 residents metric Wolf established late last month.
“Over the past two months, the General Assembly has offered to work with the Governor to address ongoing issues, including safely reopening our state for business, fixing flaws within the business waiver program, and addressing backlogs with the Department of Labor & Industry,” Mastriano said, referencing the state’s botched response to soaring unemployment claims during the economic shut down. “We are all in this together, but the administration has refused to cooperate.”
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, backed calls for reopening in Mifflin and Juniata counties and accused Wolf of “ignoring the data” to play politics instead. Total cases in each county total 52 and 93, respectively, with one death recorded in Juniata County as of Monday.
“Every reasonable measure indicates that our region absolutely should be progressing toward reopening,” Corman said. “People in this area want to get back to work and are capable of getting back to their lives safely. They need to be on the path toward yellow and ultimately green for a full reopening.”
“This is absurd,” Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said. “Since the beginning, this governor has said ‘data’ and ‘science’ would direct his decision making. What happened? There is no data-driven justification for keeping Mifflin County closed. None.”
Wolf lifted some pandemic restrictions in 24 northern and western counties on Friday. He said a slow, coordinated reopening provides public health officials the best chance to track new infections and prevent future outbreaks from reaching crisis levels.
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Christen Smith is a staff reporter at The Center Square.