Centre County is not among the 17 that will move to the green phase of reopening on May 29, though Gov. Tom Wolf said on Friday he originally planned for Centre County to join that group.
‘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 during a video press conference. ‘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.’
Now the county will most likely move to the green phase a week later, on Friday, June 5.
Two of Centre County’s three commissioners — Michael Pipe and Mark Higgins — asked for the week delay because of concerns about the June 2 primary becoming a ‘super-spreader’ of COVID-19 if restrictions were eased beforehand and transmission of the virus increased in the days leading up to the election. That would increase the risk of infection among poll workers and other voters, they said.
In the green phase, businesses that are currently closed will be able to reopen, with capacity restrictions, while Centers for Disease Control public health guidelines will remain in place. Restaurants and bars will be able to offer dine-in service at 50% occupancy. Barbershops, salons, gyms, spas, theaters and shopping malls also will be able to open at reduced occupancy. Businesses currently operating at 50% occupancy can increase to 75%. Organized sports can resume, and larger gatherings can occur, though some restrictions remain.
‘If all that’s going on four or five days before the election, whatever transmission that will start at that point will then potentially be really magnified during the primary,’ Higgins said.
‘We’re very concerned about the health and safety of the citizens of Centre County. We’re still going to have 400-plus poll workers working the elections for 13 hours. We’re concerned about their health and safety and we’re concerned about the thousands of Centre County citizens who are going to show up to vote that day.’
He added that the election is the last scheduled large event in the county for months and that if it became a ‘super-spreader’ of the virus, it would set the region back further. Staying in the yellow phase for another week, he said, will help ensure the county remains in the green once it moves.
Commissioner Steve Dershem — who as a Republican is in the minority on the board — said he disagreed with Pipe and Higgins.
‘For several hours this afternoon I tried to change their course to no avail,’ Dershem said. ‘I was in favor of moving to the green phase ASAP. I believe Centre County businesses are struggling and all businesses need to reopen and try to get back to some semblance of daily operation as soon possible.’
State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, said he was ‘stunned’ by the decision by Higgins and Pipe and also tried to convince them otherwise on Friday afternoon.
‘I cannot say strongly enough how disappointed I am with this decision by the commissioners,’ Corman said. ‘I guess when we’re living on a government salary a week doesn’t matter or a couple weeks doesn’t matter. When you’re a small business… week to week is important.’
Corman said he also disagreed with the argument that the election should be a reason to delay moving to green, saying that masking and other mitigation measures will remain in place. He added that he thinks it would have encouraged more people to vote.
‘Unfortunately I think the commissioners are subscribing to fear. They’re not subscribing to hope,’ he said. ‘They’re not of a can-do mentality where we can figure things out… I can only surmise they don’t trust people. They don’t trust the citizens of Centre County to be able to go out in public again and adhere to CDC standards and still keep the community safe.’
Higgins, a longtime small business advocate, said it was difficult decision, but that he and Pipe felt it would be best for residents and businesses in the long run.
‘It was a very tough decision. We apologize to the business owners,’ Higgins said. ‘But when we looked at the possibility of the primary election turning into a super-spreader event versus delaying it just a week, in our opinion we would, to use a trite phrase, rather be safe than sorry. We just feel if we wait one more week, the last scheduled super-spreader event is in the rearview mirror and hopefully we will have months of being in the green phase.’
Higgins also cited as a cautionary example the county employee who tested positive for COVID-19 this week. The employee, Higgins said, has a ‘public-facing’ position, and a large number of people needed to be notified about possible exposure
‘We don’t want that to be multiplied by three or four polling places times a couple a couple hundred maybe upwards of 500 people per polling place,’ he said.
Corman said there’s no guarantee Wolf will still move Centre County to green on June 5.
Wolf later wrote on Twitter, however, that he plans to announce next week that Centre County will move to green on June 5.
The administration has not specified metrics used to determine moving counties from yellow to green except to say they are monitored for 14 days and assessed for risk. But, in addition to a Carnegie Mellon University risk assessment data model, the state’s metrics for moving to yellow have included adequate testing, contact tracing capabilities and procedures for high-risk settings, as well as negative tests, deaths, rate of case increases and fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 individuals over a 14-day period.
Centre County, with a population of 162,800, has had 21 cases over the past two weeks— about 13 per 100,000 individuals. The county has routinely been well within the state’s benchmark throughout the pandemic. Centre County has had 138 total cases since the first was reported on March 20, as well as five COVID-19 deaths.
Counties moving to green on May 29 are Bradford, Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Montour, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Venango and Warren.
Had it been included in the initial group, Centre would have been, by far, the largest county in the green phase, with a population about twice that of Lawrence or Crawford.
After being placed under a stay-at-home order on March 28, Centre County was among the first 24 counties in the state to move from red to yellow on May 8. Each of the counties moving from yellow to green next week was in the first red-to-yellow group.
Other than Centre, the only counties in the first yellow group not moving to green next week are Clinton, Erie, Lycoming, Northumberland and Union.