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Centre County Will Move to Green Phase on Friday

by on May 26, 2020 1:28 PM

Centre County is going green on Friday.

The Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to petition Gov. Tom Wolf to move the county to the green phase of reopening on May 29, as Wolf initially planned, and not a week later, as the commissioners previously requested.

Wolf confirmed during a press conference on Tuesday morning that he would grant the commissioners request to move to the green phase this week, easing pandemic-related restrictions and allowing businesses that are closed to reopen, with safety and mitigation requirements in place.

Notified on Friday that the governor was going to recommend Centre County be among the first to move to the green phase, commissioners Michael Pipe and Mark Higgins asked that the move be delayed until after the June 2 primary election. They were concerned that COVID-19 infections could increase undetected as people visited newly reopened businesses in the days leading up to the primary and that in turn the election could become into a "super-spreader" event that threatened the health of poll workers and voters and would ultimately set the county back further.

That initial decision was met with a backlash from some community members and business owners.

Commissioners said they had 90 minutes to provide feedback to the governor's office, and that they did not receive an answer at the time about whether the Pennsylvania Department of Health had any concerns surrounding the election.

On Sunday, Pipe and Higgins both announced they were reversing their decisions after talking with the health department, community members, business owners and local medical professionals. Commissioner Steve Dershem said from the outset he wanted to follow the governor's recommendation to move to green on May 29.

"Speaking with some of the folks in the Department of Health, I had a very good conversation with them about their decision-making process, about the data they were seeing, about their knowledge of the potential for community spread on election day," Pipe said on Tuesday. "After talking through all the steps that our elections office have been taking, the fact that the Department of State sent voter protection kits that we received that have hand sanitizer, gloves, masks, you name it — that’s going to keep our voters safe. That brought me to a comfort and an ease."

Higgins said the decision was made "based on the information we had at the time." He later spoke to many community members, including business owners and employees who had "a wide diversity of opinion," about when to move to the green phase.

"Some of those who contacted me were doctors, nurses and other health care professionals," Higgins said. "I spoke with some knowledgeable health care professionals for as long as 45 minutes. Their feedback was invaluable. Based on their opinions we’re emphasizing some steps during the voting process and improving policies and procedures for poll workers."

While Dershem was critical of the majority commissioners decision on Friday, he offered a defense of how they arrived at it.

"I know there’s been a lot of questions and concerns about the nature of this whole process and I will tell you, to my fellow commissioners’ credit, there was nothing nefarious about anything that occurred," Dershem said. "There was genuine concern for not only our poll workers but the citizens of Centre County."

The commissioners expressed some criticisms about how the decision and announcement were handled at the state level. 

When asked on Friday what metrics Centre County had failed to meet for inclusion in the green phase group, Wolf gave a slight chuckle and 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…"

Pipe said on Tuesday that the governor "laughing off" the commissioners request for a delay, and not explaining the reason, had a negative effect on county residents.

"I appreciate the stress he is under and the decisions he makes," Pipe said. "But we were able to have productive dialogue with his staff to let them know if there wasn’t an election we would have gone to green. I think we all would’ve agreed we would’ve gone to green on the 29th. We were ready for it, our businesses are ready for it, but the fact we had a concern about the election is the thing that personally held me up on it."

"It was not helpful the way it was presented at the state level," Dershem added. "I’m not going to beat anybody up about that. What was presented and what was discussed were two entirely different things. It was a little disheartening to me."

Unlike some other counties, Centre does not have its own health department, and Pipe said that because of that, the county would like advance notice, but should not be part of the decision-making process for what phase of reopening the county will be in.

Under the green phase, restaurants and bars can open for dine-in service at 50% capacity. Personal care services such hair salons and barbershops can open at 50% occupancy and by appointment only. Indoor recreation and health and wellness services such as gyms and spas, as well as entertainment venues, including theaters and shopping malls, can open at 50% capacity.

Businesses operating at 50% occupancy in the yellow phase can increase to 75%. Large recreational gatherings and nursing home visits remain restricted. Telework where possible is still strongly encouraged, and businesses with in-person operations must follow safety requirements. All businesses must follow CDC and Department of Health guidelines for social distancing and cleaning.

"We need to stay serious about this," Dershem said. "Just because we are moving to green does not mean it’s going to be a free-for-all in our community, because the worst thing that could happen, the absolute worst thing, is that we have some sort of outbreak that throws us back into that red phase. Let’s get businesses up and running. Let’s be smart. Let’s be safe. But as a community let’s be sensitive to the fact we want to go forward and not backward."

Pipe said he wants to see Centre County remain in the green phase and hopes for partnership and dialogue among the commissioners, community members and businesses.

"The enemy is the virus. The thing that we need to be working against is the virus," he said. "And I do have trust and faith in the people of Centre County to make the best decisions and for us to work together as a community."

Vern Squier, president and CEO of the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County, said the local business community is ready to safely reopen after working for weeks to curb the spread of COVID-19.

"The CBICC board, staff, members, and business community appreciate the gravity of this decision," Squier said in a statement. "Together, we are ready to move forward with utmost vigilance to continue to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our community while simultaneously reopening Centre County's economy together.

"Ultimately, (the commissioners') deliberations on the yellow-to-green timeline allowed for community input and mutual trust in reopening together. We appreciate the leadership demonstrated by Commissioners Pipe, Higgins and Dershem."

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