turkey hunter

Pennsylvania's spring gobbler season begins statewide on Saturday.

THE ISSUE

Pennsylvania’s spring hunting season for gobblers (male turkeys) runs from Saturday through May 30. The season opens in the midst of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s statewide stay-at-home order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That order continues through May 8. So what are hunters to do? “Are we allowed to go to mountain camps to hunt turkeys, fish for trout or enjoy any other outdoor recreation?” P.J. Reilly asked in his column for the April 26 Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline. “The answer to that seems about as clear as mud.”

We admit this isn’t a topic that’s of the utmost importance in this precarious moment.

Health care providers and first responders are putting themselves at tremendous risk every day. Nursing home residents and staffers find themselves at the epicenter of the deadly, contagious virus’s presence in Lancaster County. Those working at essential businesses face potential exposure to the virus daily, while the many who are now unemployed worry about the well-being of their families.

But hunting and the outdoors are part of who we are, too. Hunting is a deeply embedded family tradition for many in Lancaster County.

So it’s important for the state not to send hunters mixed messages. But that’s exactly what it has done, according to Reilly.

“Clear as mud,” indeed.

Here’s one facet of the dilemma:

1. Outdoor recreation is permitted under the stay-at-home order, if social distancing is practiced.

2. But the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has publicly recommended that Pennsylvanians travel no more than 15 minutes from their home to enjoy that outdoor recreation.

Most Lancaster County hunters are not going to find gobblers within 15 minutes of their homes.

So that’s a puzzler.

The first of many, it turns out.

Adding to the confusion, the governor’s press secretary says the 15-minute travel guideline is not part of the governor’s stay-at-home recommendation. Wolf and state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine don’t want us to travel at all, unless it’s a life-essential trip to the grocery story or doctor’s office, for example. Staying at home is the No. 1 strategy for mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

But not everyone in Harrisburg is on the same page.

Travis Lau, a spokesperson for the state Game Commission, told LNP | LancasterOnline’s Reilly that “travel for outdoor recreation is permitted. Going turkey hunting, and traveling to go turkey hunting, is not in violation of the stay-at-home guidelines.”

Yet the Game Commission itself cautions us to stay at home as much as possible and eliminate unnecessary travel.

Is your head spinning yet?

One problem with travel of any significant distance is that it doesn’t simply involve going straight from the living room to the woods. There are gas stations, convenience stores and perhaps other stops along the way. Even with social distancing and the wearing of recommended masks when outdoors, there is a lot of potential for risky human interactions.

So if we are to follow the spirit of the stay-at-home order — and this editorial board strongly advocates that interpretation — it would rule out any travel for turkey hunting. At least through May 8.

Wolf addressed this topic during an April news conference. Asked about traveling extended distances for outdoor recreation or hunting, he said: “Do you really want to go out and jeopardize the lives of the people you love or neighbors or other Pennsylvanians? ... Ultimately, we’re going to win or lose this battle by what each Pennsylvanian decides to do on his or her own, and stay-at-home is the right way to handle this.”

So far, we’ve overwhelmingly been handling the stay-at-home order the “right way.”

And yes, we’re getting a little stir-crazy. There’s a natural temptation to start relaxing how we view the stay-at-home order. To push back at its boundaries.

But the order is having a positive effect. It’s saving lives. The health experts say we should continue following this strict guidance through at least May 8.

We agree. We think hunters should, too.

If all goes well, perhaps we’ll have better clarity and a coordinated message from state officials on what a safe gobbler season can look like for the final three weeks of May. The turkeys will still be out there.