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Commissioners Change Course, Will Ask Governor to Move Centre County to Green Phase This Week

After initially asking for a week delay, Centre County commissioners will now tell Gov. Tom Wolf that the county is ready to move to the green phase of reopening this week.

Commissioners Michael Pipe and Mark Higgins both said on Sunday that at the board meeting on Tuesday they will join fellow commissioner Steve Dershem to vote in favor of informing Wolf that the county is ready to move from yellow to green on May 29, instead of their original request to hold off until June 5.

In announcing the first group of 17 counties that will move to the green phase on May 29, Wolf said on Friday he planned to include Centre but that commissioners said the county was not ready.

Pipe and Higgins explained that they had asked Wolf to hold Centre County’s move to green until after the June 2 primary election. They said with restrictions eased and people visiting newly opened businesses, there could be an undetected community spread of COVID-19 in the four days prior to the election. They worried the primary — the last scheduled large event in the county for months — could then become a ‘super-spreader’ of the virus with increased risk of infection for hundreds of poll workers and thousands of voters that would set the county back further.

Dershem, however, said he was in favor of the May 29 date from the start, arguing the county has adequate protective equipment and safety measures in place for election day.

In saying that he would now vote in favor of the May 29 reopening, Pipe said he spoke with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and that his concerns have been allayed.

‘The staff at the DOH were extremely helpful in addressing my concerns related to community spread of COVID-19 by moving to the ‘green phase’ prior to the Primary Election,’ Pipe wrote on Facebook. ‘We discussed the low amount of cases of COVID-19, increased utilization of vote-by-mail, and the measures the Centre County Elections Board has taken, including but not limited to, providing PPE to poll workers, moving voting locations out of long term care facilities, and the reduction of ‘high contact surfaces’ at the polling locations. I appreciate them taking the time to address my questions and concerns.’

Higgins noted that commissioners had 90 minutes to give the governor’s office an answer on Friday, and since then he has spoken with hundreds of community members, including medical professionals and business owners.

‘Based on the information we had at the time, we were concerned about our poll workers and an increased possibility of the election becoming a super spreader event if the County moved to the Green Phase before the Primary Election,’ Higgins wrote on Facebook.

‘After careful reconsideration, during the Commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday, I support the board urging Governor Wolf to consider moving Centre County to the Green Phase on Friday, May 29.’

During a Zoom call with Pipe on Saturday morning hosted by the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County, local business leaders urged Pipe and Higgins to reconsider their decision and questioned why they were not following the recommendation of the governor that the county could move to green on May 29.

Dershem said during the call that he asked for the issue to be added to the board’s agenda for Tuesday’s meeting and would urge his fellow commissioners to vote in favor of moving to green this week.

‘Most importantly, I think there are a lot of folks out there that really do need the relief,’ he said. ‘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.’

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 said on Sunday his goal is for Centre County to stay in the green phase and not have a rise in cases that would move it back to yellow. He asked community members to continue to exercise caution and follow mitigation guidelines as the county reopens further. 

‘As we move into the ‘green phase’ we must remain vigilant,’ he wrote. ‘In just three months, we have lost 100,000 Americans to COVID-19 and, according to the CDC, we still have months to go until there is a vaccine. However, we must learn to live with it. Let us continue to look out for each other, follow CDC recommendations, and DOH guidance for the ‘green phase.’

‘I know that business owners, and our local economy (are) hurting, and we are all looking forward to a safe reopening. I thank you once again for all of your input, your understanding, and for your continued commitment to making Centre County one of the best places to call home. The ‘green phase’ is not a return to normal. I wish it was. There will be a day when we have a vaccine and we can move into a ‘new normal.’ I pray that we all get to see that day. Please stay safe.’