Lacey Henn

Masked second grade students sit in Lacey Henn's class at Eastern Lancaster County School District's Brecknock Elementary School on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020.

THE ISSUE

"Lancaster County recorded more than 500 new cases of COVID-19 last week, briefly placing it among 14 Pennsylvania counties in which community transmission of the virus was considered high,” LNP | LancasterOnline reported Monday afternoon, noting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its rolling seven-day analysis in an update “with new, slightly lower numbers, putting the county back in the ‘substantial transmission’ category.” The CDC is advising people in areas reporting substantial or high transmission rates to wear masks indoors regardless of their vaccination status. The delta variant of the novel coronavirus now is the predominant strain in the county, as elsewhere in the United States.

Who is at the helm now?

Who is helping school officials to decide the safest way to reopen school at the end of the month?

Who is giving businesses an assist in keeping their employees and customers safe?

Does anyone have the spine to tell us the truth? That we were suckered into promises of local control and liberty by elected officials who understand neither?

Remember the debate over the governor’s COVID-19 disaster emergency declaration? We were told by Republicans that it was wrong for so much power to rest in the hands of one elected official — that the power needed to be returned to the Legislature and, by extension, the people.

What they meant was to some of the people.

Consider what transpired Friday at a hearing of the state Senate Education Committee. Part of the discussion was about masking in schools.

Pennsylvania acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said the Wolf administration did not intend to mandate masks at this time, but supports local school districts requiring mask-wearing so that students can remain safely in the classroom.

So that is good, right, according to the state lawmakers who championed local control?

Not so fast.

State Sen. Scott Martin, a Martic Township Republican and chairman of the committee, questioned state Health and Education Department officials about whether local authorities had “the constitutional or statutory” authority to require masks.

He suggested that no such authority exists and that school districts that require masks might be “opening themselves up to potential litigation. ... It’s an important question when you are dealing with people’s rights and their kids.”

Never mind the right you have as a parent to send your child to school, trusting that your child won’t end up in an intensive care unit with COVID-19, as children in other states now are doing.

Liberty apparently is only for some.

And local control apparently is a mirage.

No wonder Martin was cheered heartily by the anti-masking parents in attendance at his hearing.

The hearing apparently took place in an alternate reality, where the delta variant does not exist.

If only.

Throwing in the towel

The delta variant is as infectious as the chickenpox, according to the CDC. It’s more transmissible than the viruses that cause the seasonal flu or Ebola. We dismiss its power to harm us at our peril.

We understand being frustrated by the pandemic’s staying power and the virus’s infuriating resilience. But there’s frustration and there’s denial, and the latter is dangerous.

Sadly, having tussled endlessly with the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Legislature earlier in the pandemic, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf appears to have thrown in the towel.

As Beam mentioned, the governor has no plans to institute any new mask mandates or other mitigation measures. “Our strategy here in Pennsylvania has been the vaccine. And that has worked,” Wolf said July 26 during a visit to downtown Lancaster.

For sure, the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. But too few people in Lancaster County — as in other parts of the commonwealth — have gotten inoculated. Just 54% of Lancaster County residents ages 12 and older are fully vaccinated.

That’s nowhere near enough to achieve herd immunity.

Leadership vacuum

So who is going to steer the ship toward safety now? If not Sen. Martin, how about Republican state Sen. Ryan Aument of Mount Joy and the state COVID-19 Vaccine Joint Task Force?

Aument tweeted Friday that mask-wearing shouldn’t be required in Pennsylvania schools — which is the opposite of what the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended.

With due respect to the state senator, we’d rather that schools be led by the advice of physicians trained to prevent infectious diseases, not by a politician who didn’t go to medical school.

Politicians, including school board members, are always going to be influenced by the constituents who make the most noise — and the noisemakers now are anti-masking parents, not those worrying quietly about how their children, too young to be vaccinated, are going to fare in the classroom with the delta variant capable of wreaking havoc.

Gov. Wolf may be worn out by his battles with the state Legislature over previous mitigation measures. But he’s effectively a lame duck now. He’s in the best position of anyone to step up and put the lives of Pennsylvanians before politics.

Because the Republican-led Lancaster County Board of Commissioners isn’t going to do it. And our county doesn’t have a public health department.

Navigating the complexities of a public health crisis requires leadership. And we’re facing a leadership vacuum right now.

No surrender

Unvaccinated people are extending the pandemic by giving the novel coronavirus — and now, specifically, the delta variant — more opportunities to harm us.

And because mask-wearing — a simple, but effective way to help protect against infection — has been so politicized since the start of the pandemic, some school officials and politicians don’t want to mandate it. They’re afraid of the most strident anti-science voices in their communities when what they really should fear is further spread of COVID-19.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy isn’t surrendering to the anti-science forces in his state or to the delta variant. He announced a mask mandate Friday for all students, staff and visitors in New Jersey’s schools for the start of the academic year. He made the announcement at an elementary school, even as protesters gathered outside. And he reaffirmed his decision Monday.

“We are not going to sacrifice the health of any child, any educator, any family, or any community. We’re not going to just let COVID shut down our schools,” Murphy said at a Monday COVID-19 briefing. “We’re not willing to surrender our kids to this virus, unlike those opposed to this commonsense plan.”

According to NJ.com, Murphy said that 13 children are being treated in New Jersey hospitals for COVID-19 and two of them are in intensive care. And that’s without school being in session.

“There are those on one side in this who will preface these numbers with the word ‘only,’ ” Murphy said. “When they say ‘only,’ they are saying that they are perfectly willing to accept children landing in the ICU or dying from COVID.”

That is leadership.

Murphy, like Wolf, is a Democrat. But unlike Wolf, Murphy is not shrugging his shoulders and leaving the children of his state to suffer the consequences of our twisted politics.

In the absence of such leadership, individual parents are going to need to drown out the shrill anti-science voices and make their case to school officials for needed COVID-19 protection measures.

Likewise, businesses are going to have to make smart decisions about masking and vaccination to protect their employees and customers alike. We cannot risk the blows to the local economy that a significant new surge would bring.

Apparently we’re on our own now in this fight.

Our opponent — the delta variant — is getting help from elected officials who are weakening our defenses by playing politics with mask-wearing and COVID-19 vaccination. They preach liberty, but what they’re really delivering is surrender.

What to Read Next