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People walk in downtown Lancaster on Friday, May 15, 2020. Many stores remained closed, following state guidelines. 

THE ISSUE

On Friday, Republican elected officials declared Lancaster County to be in the less-restrictive “yellow” phase, in defiance of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s phased reopening plan. That very day, the county’s number of confirmed coronavirus cases rose to 2,428, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. That was 64 new cases over the previous day. Among the criteria 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 had 111 new cases per 100,000 over two weeks ending Friday — more than twice the rate of new cases that the Wolf administration says is safe for partial reopening.

As a team of LNP | LancasterOnline journalists reported, there was no dramatic change across the county Friday, the day it moved into the “yellow” phase without state approval.

While that phase allows more retail businesses to open, many local business owners — wisely, in our view — kept their doors closed.

The Lancaster Chamber had “strongly” cautioned businesses Thursday to consider “the legal consequences of opening outside of the Governor’s guidelines,” noting that while Wolf’s shutdown order “is being challenged in court, his authority has been upheld to this point.” The chamber also encouraged employers and businesses “to contact their insurance carrier and inquire whether operating under these circumstances could jeopardize their coverage.”

It appears that many businesses chose to be cautious.

There were some outliers, of course — a consignment shop in Strasburg; two craft and knick-knack stores in Bird-in-Hand; a barber shop in Millersville (even though barber shops are to remain closed until a county moves into the “green” phase).

The defiant reopening was yet another flash point in the battle over freedom in the time of the novel coronavirus — a battle that’s examined in today’s Perspective section.

It’s also a battle waged not just in today’s letters to the editor, but in letters all last week.

And in the state General Assembly, where Lancaster County Republican lawmakers voted Thursday to pass a bill that would allow counties to develop and implement their own COVID-19 mitigation plans for businesses.

Senate Bill 327’s co-sponsors include state Sen. Scott Martin, of Martic Township, whose family is divided over the question of reopening without state approval.

Family feud

The Republican senator drew fire from his brother, a local nurse, over his push to allow counties to bypass the governor’s emergency executive order on businesses.

Normally, we’d consider family disputes to be off-limits, but Martin brought his siblings into the public square by praising them on his official Senate Facebook page for their work as emergency room nurses at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health during National Nurses Week.

(A pro-tip, learned from experience: Always alert family members before mentioning them in a public forum.)

Martin’s younger brother, Ryan Martin, 38, believed it was his duty as a nurse to set the record straight, so he posted on Facebook as "a concerned citizen." He chided the senator for implying that “our familial relationship has improved your understanding of this pandemic.” And reminded him that his own siblings “will be asked to enter harm’s way” if his political calculations on reopening prove to be wrong.

“You’re a Pennsylvania State Senator, passionately pushing for legislation that removes community safety measures before we are adequately prepared,” Ryan Martin wrote, noting that he was writing on his own behalf and not that of his employer.

In a post that was widely viewed and shared, Ryan Martin wrote that he’s had to intubate people around his age and that there are not enough preventative measures in place for Lancaster County to “steal the ball from the quarterback and run the other way” and partially reopen without the governor’s approval.

Unnecessary rush

This editorial board has fallen squarely on the side of public health and safety.

While we’ve been critical of the Wolf administration’s lack of transparency in dealing with the pandemic — and pointedly asked Wolf officials last week for more answers — we believe the decision by Republican officials to partially reopen Lancaster County on Friday in defiance of state guidelines was premature and potentially harmful to the public health.

We remain concerned that the county lacks the testing, contact tracing and protective personal equipment to safely reopen our economy and society.

As LNP | LancasterOnline reported last week, Lancaster County had tested just 2.4% of its population for coronavirus as of Thursday. This is hardly exceptional.

The testing and tracing tools are being assembled now. But only Wednesday did the county approve agreements with the entities providing them — Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health and the Lancaster Chamber and Economic Development Company of Lancaster County.

That was two days before the unofficial reopening.

Two days.

It was a rush job at a time when testing supplies and protective equipment are hard to obtain. We simply don’t understand this recklessness on the part of elected officials.

Lancaster County residents whose paychecks have been halted, whose sources of income have evaporated, certainly need assistance from the state. The state’s Office of Unemployment Compensation was horribly unprepared for the deluge of claims.

But encouraging businesses to reopen without state approval was not the answer.

Hope dashed

Amid the turmoil, we were gratified last week when Sens. Martin and Ryan Aument, the Republican county commissioners and the county’s GOP House delegation delivered a lengthy and transparent written response to questions posed by the LNP | LancasterOnline Editorial Board. We hope the Wolf administration follows their lead.

There was also a moment of promise — albeit short-lived — at a county news conference Thursday.

Democratic county Commissioner Craig Lehman just had delivered a righteously angry speech about the lack of thought that had gone into choosing Friday as a partial reopening date.

Lehman lambasted his fellow commissioners — Republicans Josh Parsons and Ray D’Agostino — for playing “politics with public safety,” and declared, “Our politics in this country is absolutely, positively broken because we have decided that partisanship, tribalism and toxicity in our politics is more important than doing the right thing.”

Lehman implored his Republican colleagues to wait another week, until at least some of the necessary contact tracing and testing could be put into place.

Then Congressman Lloyd Smucker uttered these five surprising words: “That’s not a bad deal.”

The Republican representing the 11th Congressional District said he could support a one-week delay to May 22.

“I’ve been saying for weeks that we should allow businesses to operate if they can do so safely,” Smucker said. “I would far prefer that all of the elected officials in Lancaster County come together, both Republican and Democrat, and say that we are ready to open.”

But Parsons rejected the bipartisan compromise, proving Lehman’s point about our broken politics.

Fortunately, many Lancaster County residents demonstrated Friday that they aren’t willing to risk their health — or that of others — to make a political point.

We are grateful to them.