Thirteen Republican federal, state and county elected officials — including county Commissioners Josh Parsons and Ray D’Agostino — announced Sunday that they would move Lancaster County from the “red” phase of the state’s reopening plan into the less restrictive “yellow” phase Friday, which will allow some retail businesses to open. To be considered for a partial reopening under state guidelines, counties must have fewer than 50 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents over the previous 14 days. Lancaster County’s score under that metric rose slightly to 114 on Wednesday — more than twice the rate of new cases that the Wolf administration says is safe for reopening. According to the state Department of Health, Lancaster County had 2,325 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday.
Imagine deciding on a Sunday that you’re going to throw a party for thousands of people that Friday.
You call the caterers, who tell you they can’t prepare the food and hire servers in that tight time frame, but they might be able to deliver what you want in a few weeks. Same goes with the florist, who says her suppliers won’t be able to come through in so limited a time.
You’d reschedule the party, right, until everything could be in place?
That’s essentially the dilemma — though they seem unwilling to acknowledge it — facing Republican county Commissioners Parsons and D’Agostino. But the stakes in their case are a lot higher.
If you throw a lousy party, you might be embarrassed, but no one is going to get sick or even die because of your poor planning.
At Wednesday’s protracted and tense commissioners’ meeting, one thing was crystal-clear: Lancaster County is not ready for reopening — even partly — Friday.
And Parsons and D’Agostino don’t seem to grasp just how far out on a limb they are — or the risks for business owners who join them in defying the governor’s emergency executive order on businesses (which has been upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and which the U.S. Supreme Court declined to lift).
County residents viewing the livestream of the commissioners’ meeting pressed for Dr. Michael Ripchinski, chief clinical officer of Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, to answer directly whether he thought the county was ready to move into the “yellow” phase.
Ripchinski dodged the question, insisting that decision wasn’t his to make.
When the question was put to him more plainly — “Is it safe?” — he grimaced slightly and replied, “Same answer.”
Ripchinski was in a tough position. At that very meeting, the commissioners approved an agreement with LG Health to do essential contact tracing and testing.
Even without Ripchinski’s assessment, it was evident from the answers given throughout the meeting that all of the tools the county needs to safely reopen won’t be fully in place Friday. And may not be in place for weeks.
Those tools include the personal protective equipment that the Lancaster Chamber and Economic Development Company of Lancaster County will work to distribute to small businesses when supplies can be obtained.
Here’s a question: If businesses reopen Friday and COVID-19 cases rise because of decreased social distancing and inadequate protective equipment for workers, how will the fledgling contact tracing system be able to keep up with the increased demands on it? How would an outbreak be contained if infections cannot be traced and cases cannot be quickly isolated?
And who will cover the potential liability of businesses that reopened in defiance of the governor?
Because of these and other questions, commissioners in other counties — such as Dauphin and Cumberland — have jumped off the reckless path of moving from the red phase to the yellow without state approval.
Dauphin County’s commissioners announced Wednesday that they had reconsidered their rebellion. As PennLive reported, they voted instead to create a task force “to guide the county as it does reopen in compliance with the state’s plan.”
As PennLive noted, “the Republicans said this was a fight that they could not win at the moment.”
It takes guts to admit when you’re on a ruinous path and need to turn back.
It also takes courage to defy those in your party who you think are leading you astray.
As LNP | LancasterOnline reports, “At least five municipalities, including three led by Republicans, are rejecting the GOP-led effort to defy Gov. Tom Wolf and partially reopen Lancaster County this week.”
Reporters Alex Geli, Hurubie Meko and Dan Nephin wrote that elected officials in Ephrata, Denver, Columbia, Marietta and Lancaster city have taken stands opposing the commissioners’ plan to begin gradually allowing businesses to open before Wolf lifts the most stringent restrictions on the county.
“In Ephrata, Republican Mayor Ralph Mowen cast a tie-breaking vote on Monday to oppose a resolution that would have supported the county’s early reopening,” they wrote. “He raised questions about the borough’s authority to defy an order from the governor, and about whether local Republicans were playing politics.”
Mowen, a lifelong Republican, said: “I quite honestly wonder, if the governor was Republican, if they would have done this.”
He called the move “political and not science-driven.”
Meanwhile, Commissioners D’Agostino and Parsons spoke Wednesday in vague generalities about how Friday’s partial reopening will unfold.
Parsons criticized Wolf’s actions as “arbitrary” and “capricious” — which is exactly how many people would characterize the county’s unilateral decision to disregard the state guidelines.
Craig Lehman, the sole Democratic commissioner, implored his colleagues to wait until contact tracing, ramped-up testing and protective equipment for businesses are in place before reopening the county.
He said it’s “clear the county has no legal authority” to move on its own from the red phase to the yellow — a point that county solicitor Chris Hausner declined to either confirm or counter.
Lehman said he’d make a personal plea to Wolf to change Lancaster County’s status once contact tracing is in place; the county has “reasonable testing capacity;" and health officials can confirm there’s no risk to reopening.
Parsons and D’Agostino, however, would not be swayed. They seem to be mistaking stubbornness for strength. They ought to reconsider.