One month of COVID19

A "closed for now" sign is seen on the door of a business in the Cipher Building along King Street in Lancaster city, Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

Lancaster County elected officials plan to move the county to the “yellow” phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan, despite Wolf extending the stay-at-home order in counties including Lancaster until at least June 4.

In a letter sent to Wolf on Sunday, 13 Republican federal, state and county elected officials wrote Lancaster County will move from the “red” phase — under the strictest stay-at-home orders — to yellow on Friday.  The county has been in the red phase since March 27.

By moving the county to this designation, some  businesses that aren’t life-sustaining could reopen and gatherings of up to 25 people would be allowed, following health guidelines. However, “telework must continue where feasible,” restaurants remain limited to takeout and delivery, and schools remain closed for in-person instruction, according to Wolf's guidelines for the yellow phase.

In a press release, state Sen. Ryan Aument, who signed the letter, said, “Lancaster County has demonstrated time and time again that our leaders are able to find local solutions to local problems through collaboration. As such, we have developed a reopening plan together with municipal, county, state, and federal elected officials in partnership with the private sector business community and non-profits that is specifically tailored to Lancaster County.”

The officials wrote in the letter that they prefer to work with Wolf but would continue with their plan whether or not he approves.

Lancaster joins three other counties — Dauphin, Lebanon and Franklin — that announced since Friday they will defy Wolf’s stay-at-home order, in an effort to begin reopening parts of Pennsylvania’s devastated economy.

The move comes after weeks of state Republicans’ frustration with the Wolf administration for not being transparent about waivers for businesses allowed to remain open and other decision-making processes, as Wolf continues to act under powers he has under the emergency declaration signed March 6.

Several county Democrats spoke against the letter.

Craig Lehman, the only Democratic  county commissioner, said “Before we can reasonably consider moving from red to yellow, we must have, at a minimum, countywide rapid response contact tracing and increased testing in place. Without that, any call to reopen is arbitrary and has no public health basis. True economic recovery will be dependent upon public confidence in having established the necessary public health tools. Until those tools are in place, we risk doing more harm than good.”

Lancaster city Mayor Danene Sorace, a Democrat, said that Lancaster County is not prepared to move out of the red phase.

“The City does not condone or support any actions in contradiction of the governor’s order,” Sorace said in a Facebook post.

Those who do violate the governor’s orders, however, will not be prosecuted, the Lancaster County District Attorney's Office said Sunday.

The elected officials cited low ventilator and bed usage at area health care systems in their letter to Wolf as a reason why the county will reopen.

“All hospital systems (in Lancaster County) report an ample supply of beds and ventilators, so much so, that they are resuming normal operations,” the officials wrote.

The officials said they will work to stay in contact with health care professionals to “be able to identify and swiftly respond to increased numbers in the event of a resurgence.”

The letter mentioned the county had hired Edwin Hurston as the public health emergency advisor to provide "dedicated technical, administrative and logistical advice" during the COVID-19 pandemic. When contacted Sunday afternoon, Hurston said he had not yet read the letter.

Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital said it “will continue working with state and local governments, other health systems and our diverse business and social-service communities to improve the region's overall health and well-being during this unprecedented time.”

With $95 million in funds allocated to the county through the federal coronavirus aid bill, officials promised to aid the “high risk populations” like nursing homes and long-term living facilities, the letter said.

When the letter was written, 207 deaths were reported by Lancaster County Coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni. Approximately 90% of those deaths “originated from long-term living or nursing home facility residents.”

Diamantoni said Sunday that he believes a shift from red to yellow Friday would be “reasonable.” He said it appears as if the number of reported COVID-19 cases per day has plateaued.

Lancaster County commissioners said they will be implementing a “four-pronged approach” to mitigate and prevent the spread of COVID-19 within these facilities.

The efforts include:

— All residents and staff members at nursing homes or long-term living facilities will be tested for COVID-19, whether they show symptoms or not.

— Personal protective equipment will be supplied to the facilities by the county.

— Professional cleaning companies will be available to all facilities that request the service.

— Mitigation measures will be taught and reviewed.

The officials said they share the same goals as Wolf: public health, safety and “an economy that can begin to recover,” but said Wolf has “lost the will of many people to continue on the extremely narrow path you have outlined.”

“The time is now to begin restoring and rebuilding a strong Lancaster County,” the letter said. “This is what our citizens want and deserve.”

In response to Lancaster planning to move to yellow, Wolf’s press secretary Lyndsay Kensinger said that Wolf acknowledges the economic damage caused by the pandemic, but “prematurely opening up counties, however, will result in unnecessary death, and not just the loss of jobs.”

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