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Business Leaders Press Commissioners to Reconsider Green Phase Delay

by on May 23, 2020 6:22 PM

Members of the local business community on Saturday urged Centre County commissioners to reverse their decision delaying the county's move to the green phase of reopening by one week.

And while it's not yet known whether they will change course and ask Gov. Tom Wolf to move the county to green on May 29, as Wolf initially intended, instead of June 5, as requested by the county, the matter will be on the agenda for the commissioners' meeting at 10 a.m. on Tuesday.

The Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County hosted a Zoom call on Saturday morning for Board of Commissioners Chairman Michael Pipe to explain the decision and for CBICC members to ask questions and offer comment. Vern Squier, president and CEO of CBICC, told Pipe there was broad support in the business community to move to green next week instead of the following. 

"Many of the questions and comments I received prior to this video moment are centering around urging you to reconsider, to do so quickly, and communicate that to the governor’s office. The community will support you, at least certainly those on the call here but also those I’m hearing from," Squier said.

Rob Schmidt, executive director of the Downtown State College Improvement District, said after the call that most business owners he heard from were in favor of opening as quickly as possible.

“I received several messages Friday night, from businesses within the district and throughout the county," Schmidt said. "The overwhelming majority of these businesses are anxious to reopen. I’m pleased that Commissioner Pipe was willing to meet with us on short notice to discuss their decision.”

On Friday, Wolf announced that 17 counties would move from the yellow phase to green phase, but Centre was not among them. When asked what metrics for managing the spread of COVID-19 the county had fallen short on, Wolf said none.

"The local officials in Centre County said they didn’t feel Centre County was ready to move so we honored their request that they not move into the green," Wolf said. "I think they’ve done a phenomenal job (with COVID-19 cases), yet they don't feel that they're ready… We were sensitive to their request."

Two of the county's three commissioners — Pipe and Mark Higgins — said they asked for the delay because of concerns about the June 2 primary becoming a "super-spreader" of COVID-19 if restrictions were eased beforehand and an undetected spread of the virus occurred in the days leading up to the election. That would increase the risk of infection among poll workers and other voters, they said, and would set the county further back.

"My concern is that would threaten the longterm strategy that we want to get to where we’re in the green phase the longest," Pipe said on Saturday.

Pipe said that the commissioners were notified around 12:30 p.m. Friday that the governor's office and health department were recommending Centre County move to the green phase on May 29. He said they were given 90 minutes to provide any feedback.

After an emergency meeting with the commissioners and county administrator Margaret Gray, they asked to push the green phase date to Wednesday, June 3, but were told "it’s really set on a Friday," Pipe said. Dershem said he disagreed with Pipe and Higgins and advocated for following the governor's recommendation to go green on May 29.

Though Wolf did not say so during the press conference on Friday, he later confirmed on Twitter that Centre County would move to green on June 5. Pipe said that came after he expressed his "sincere displeasure" that Wolf did not provide clarity about the commissioners' request during the press conference.

In the green phase, businesses that are currently closed will be permitted to reopen. Movie theaters, shopping malls, gyms and spas can open at 50 percent occupancy and personal care services such as hair salons and barbershops will be open at 50 percent capacity by appointment only. Restaurants and bars will be able to offer dine-in service, at 50 percent occupancy. Businesses that have been operating at 50 percent capacity will be able to move to 75 percent. All businesses will be required to follow CDC and health department guidelines.

Pipe further explained the concerns he and Higgins had about easing those restrictions four days prior to election day.

"The way that the incubation period works with COVID-19 is it’s a roughly five-day period, meaning you wouldn’t start to show symptoms until about the fifth day. From looking at the calendar then on the 29th, 30th, 31st and moving into the 1st, that was the possibility of four days where we would reduce restrictions and people would be going to the restaurants that you run, the hair salons that you run, the gyms that you run that we want to get back in operation. They may be asymptomatic and not even know they are sick...  

"This virus is so insidious, so the concern was if any community spread were to start on those four days and then we had poll workers and potentially voters who were exposed to COVID-19, then going to vote, there could be a possibility for another community spread event on election day. Then what would occur is we would have community spread throughout the county and we would be right back into (the) yellow (phase)."

Squier, who moderated the Saturday morning Zoom call, questioned why 17 other counties felt it was OK to move to green before the election but Centre did not, as well as why the county was not following the state's guidance when it had done so throughout the pandemic.

"To date, the business community members on this call … have tried to perform to the best of their ability to comply and exhibit behaviors that each of the requested efforts by the governor asked for," Squier said. "Yet when the governor was saying let’s go to green, the county did not. There’s this looming question: Why did we not simply follow yet again the governor’s recommendation?"

Pipe said he asked if the state health department had any concerns about moving to green prior to election day but did not yet receive a response, adding that he doesn't know why other counties did not ask the same question.

Dershem, meanwhile, said he believes the county has adequate personal protective equipment and safety measures in place for the nearly 400 poll workers and thousands of voters who will go to 84 voting locations on June 2.

"The difference between Friday and Tuesday will not really deter or influence the health and safety of our community," Dershem said. "Most importantly, I think there are a lot of folks out there that really do need the relief. There’s folks that are struggling, both financially and from a business structure standpoint. We need to give them that relief as quickly as possible."

He said he "would strongly suggest," that his fellow commissioners reconsider the delay at the meeting on Tuesday and tell Wolf's office Centre County is ready to move to green on May 29.

Schmidt said he hopes Pipe and Higgins follow Dershem's suggestion.

“The commissioners now have the opportunity to review the green stage guidance, solicit input from the business community and make a more informed decision," Schmidt said. "It is our hope that the commissioners will vote to proceed to green this coming Friday.”

Asked directly by Squier whether he would reconsider his position, Pipe declined to answer.

"The forum we’re going to have that conversation as a board and have that back-and-forth will be on Tuesday at 10 a.m.," Pipe said.

Squier also said that for many business owners, it felt as if the commissioners had squashed a moment of hope.

"At a moment of hope, at a moment of achieving some more relief from this terrible situation that we’re in the feeling is the commissioners jumped in the way and said 'Stop we’re not going to allow that to occur,' albeit for a short time longer. But the removal of that hope, even for a short period is being commented on by many folks on this call," he said.

Pipe said that the plight of business owners and workers has weighed on him and the other commissioners and that his time pre-politics of working in and managing a downtown State College restaurant "is with me every day."

"I would not make the decision lightly to encourage the governor to delay for a week," he said. "It was not an easy decision and I understand where people are coming from with their anger."

He added that the commissioners' goal throughout the pandemic has been to balance public health and economic concerns while setting the community on a course for longterm recovery.

"Since we moved from the red phase to the yellow phase… we’ve stressed the need to balance public safety, the health and welfare of our citizens and then also the business community, needing to get us back up and running and reopening Centre County," he said. "Our goal is that ultimately we stay in the green phase for as long as possible and we want to set a plan and a structure in place where we do not enter the green phase and then have to jump back to yellow or red. The governor has said if cases climb, if we started to see community outbreak, community spread here or anywhere else throughout Pennsylvania then there would be a decision to put us back in the yellow back into the red possibly and that would essentially do away with all the work we’ve done."

Schmidt said he believes downtown State College businesses are ready to move forward.

“I am very pleased with the safety measures our downtown businesses have been taking to assure the safety of their employees and customers,” he said.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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