For Centre County Commissioner Mark Higgins, it was about a year ago during a conference call with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey that he realized the coronavirus was going to have a long and lasting impact on the lives of Centre County residents. At the time, reports were coming out that the virus was already in most states and the death rates were higher than those of the flu, Higgins said.
“And you know, just being on a call with a U.S. senator, where he is saying this is probably going to be bad, and that in the near term you are probably not going to get much out of the federal government, so do what you can locally. That was a little scary, and obviously, as time went on, that particular advice really got borne out,” Higgins said.
Once the first case was verified in Pennsylvania, fellow Commissioner Michael Pipe realized the lives of people in Centre County were going to be directly impacted.
“When it did, it felt like the days soon after that the initial lockdowns and targeted mitigation efforts started,” Pipe said. “I think that was an indicator here locally that we were going to enter into a new way of life, with no idea of when it was going to end.”
Commissioner Steve Dershem said that during this time he used his experience as county commissioner during the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic to help guide him through the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was kind of putting it in the perspective of what we did, back in the swine flu days, which was … wash your hands be commonsensical about what we were up to, but when this happened, luckily, Centre County and the Central Region Terrorism Task Force still had the forethought to stash a bunch of personal protective equipment,” Dershem said. “So, we were not caught flat-footed, like some other areas that didn’t have that stockpile available.”
ADJUSTING TO THE NEW NORMAL
Centre County’s first COVID-19 case was confirmed on March 20, 2020. One year later, 13,384 positives and 213 deaths attributed to the virus have been reported in the county.
Higgins said the year has been difficult because he was concerned about the impact of the pandemic on the people of Centre County.
“I’m assuming a number of our other local elected officials were feeling the same way,” Higgins said. “I mean, you care about people, you want to help people. But there’s only so much you can do during a pandemic, especially at the local level.”
Every day, he and Pipe looked at statistics from the Department of Health and put them in a spreadsheet for Centre County. It has been a daunting task.
“Those numbers, especially for the deaths … they had friends and relatives and loved ones, and they’re just not here anymore,” Higgins said.
Dershem said it was difficult moving county government to a remote delivery system, but he is proud of how the county workers adjusted.
“I think it went about as well as it could considering we did have such limited access to one another,” Dershem said. “When you think about meetings today vs. meetings a little over a year ago, when we were actually able to talk face-to-face with one another. You now have to do everything by email or through some virtual environment. It is just a little bit different now. I don’t think you have quite the ability to operate as effectively in a remote environment.”
He added later, “We’re going to get back to it. We’re going to get back to business here and I think pretty quickly. I think in the next couple of weeks, we should be back fully, fully engaged with the public. And as the vaccines roll out, I think we’ll be back at a very, very interpersonal basis, again, because a lot of what we do really needs to be done in person.”
Learning from the past year, Pipe said he foresees a potential hybrid model for county workers in the future, where they may be able to work remotely and come into an office when needed.
Some employees prefer the flexibility of working remotely, he said, while others wish to be back in an office format, and he noted the county will evaluate what will work best as it moves forward.
Higgins listed a number of things that make him proud of Centre County over the last year:
“The hard work of county government staff. The resilience of Centre County residents. The record voter turnout during the 2020 election. The nearly 1,000 citizens who volunteered to help make the 2020 election run smoothly. Due to the relative financial health of Centre County government compared to other Pennsylvania counties, the Centre County commissioners were able to distribute more than 75 percent of the $14,664,804 in CARES Act funding in grants, products and services to the local community. These included $5,531,254.42 in grants to 427 local small businesses, one of the largest small-business grant programs in the state by both number of small businesses assisted and total grant dollars awarded. It was also the largest single grant in Centre County government history.
“Being the first county in the state to directly fund free, no-appointment-needed COVID-19 testing. Grants totaling $864,500 to 105 local nonprofits. Grants to all the school districts in the county. Purchasing and distributing almost $800,000 of PPE for small business, nonprofits and other groups. Sending over $1 million to local municipalities. And assisting a neighboring county when they closed their county jail during a weekend.”
Dershem said he has been proud of the Centre County employees, “particularly our security personnel, law enforcement and the telecommunicators. They really have stepped up and operated. Our corrections officers. They’ve operated in an environment that really not only is unprecedented, but was dangerous for them and bringing some tough situations into their lives both physically and stress-wise.”
Pipe added, “The thing I’ve been most proud about is how our employees have really, really pulled together as a team. We’ve talked about teamwork in the past as something we’ve wanted to make as a principal and a focus and a guideline to emulate county government here in Centre County, but I think that it couldn’t have been demonstrated more aptly from our employees during the last year. That’s something that I really am forever grateful for.”
NO COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT
Residents have looked to the county for answers to questions about the pandemic, and Pipe said that without its own department of health, the county had to quickly adjust to provide what leadership it could, while also continuing the necessary services.
“People have been looking… to county government for reassurance about what comes next … reassurance about decisions based upon health policy, decisions based upon when we can start to reopen,” Pipe said. “We’ve been in a position without a health department, like many of our larger counties have had to use utilize as a resource. We really needed to do an incredible amount of scaling up when it comes to a knowledge base about the need to wear masks and social distance, handwashing, staying home when sick, those types of things that we really needed to start to promote.
“But, I think we’ve tried to do the best that we could with the information we had in terms of leading county government and trying to be a public face for many people in Centre County that had questions.”
Adding a department of health in Centre County is something that will need to be discussed moving forward, Pipe said, but it is a large and expensive endeavor to create one.
He said it would be important that the department would be something the county would utilize all the time, not just during a pandemic, in order to make it worth the time and effort to establish it.
“If we can make it be something that can be of use, not just during pandemics, but during non-pandemic times, I think that’s also something certainly to consider. I think we will be having that conversation,” Pipe said.
Commissioners Higgins and Dershem do not feel that a health department is a feasible idea for Centre County government. Higgins said the process for creating such a department is difficult and expensive.
“The last county that tried to set up a county health department worked on it for a decade. They spent over $7 million on the effort and they finally gave up,” said Higgins.
Only six counties and four municipalities have full health department’s created under Pennsylvania’s Act 315, which provides funding of up to about $8 per resident for departments that meet certain requirements.
Dershem said he feels it is something that is not necessarily needed in Centre County.
“If we were a larger county, maybe. I don’t know that we have a role unless it’s in these pandemic circumstances, which do not occur routinely,” Dershem said. “If we were going to go through this every year or two, then I would certainly have a different attitude. But I think the state Department of Health has been very helpful with us, trying to keep us informed of what’s going on. Has it been perfect? No, but I don’t think the expense that it would take and effort that it would require would be warranted at this point.”
Looking back at the beginning of the pandemic, all three commissioners said they wished they knew that we would still be dealing with this a year later.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be over quickly, but you hoped that the masking and the social distancing and the efforts of the healthcare workers, and the hard work of all the scientists, that at some point, there would be some therapies or a drug or just something that would start to really blunt the crisis,” Higgins said. “And instead, we’re at pretty much a year and now, we’re finally starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s not an oncoming freight train.”
Looking back to last May when the county temporarily asked the state to allow it to hold off on going to the green phase of reopening, even though the state had approved it to do so, is something that Pipe now thinks he would have handled differently. Eventually, the commissioners agreed to move forward with the state recommendation, and he said he feels the county, at the time, was trying to keep people safe.
“I think in hindsight, even though we ended up at the recommendation the governor’s office had, I think it would have been just better if we had just said when they reached out to us to say, ‘Would you like to go to the green phase?’ We said, ‘Yes, sounds good. You’re looking at the data. You know, you have from a statewide perspective, you have the numbers, and just go from there,’” Pipe said. “The worry that I had, personally, was that I didn’t want to see cases increase. I didn’t want to see hospitalizations and more deaths occur. At the same time, I think I had more of a caution with approaching that.”
Despite that situation, Pipe said he feels in other ways, “we’ve struck the right balance when it comes to being one of the first counties last year to have a resolution supporting mandatory masking. I think we’ve done a great job and really it is a testament to our county staff, making sure that we were working from home as much as possible, doing social distancing when we are in the office, masking and all that. So, I think we struck the right balance there.”
All three commissioners agreed that the county government weathered the storm better than most from a financial standpoint.
“If I were looking at it from a year ago, I would have thought it would have been devastating,” Dershem said. “We really have not only economized, but through the influx of state and federal dollars, I think the impacts have been as minor as they could be. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been any. Certainly, as we move forward, we’ll see what the trailing expenses are, but right now, I think we’ve weathered it very, very well financially.”
Higgins said the strength of the county as a whole helped as they dealt with the impact of the pandemic.
“Due to the hard work and quick action of county government, municipalities, nonprofits, local businesses and many other stakeholders, Centre County is in better shape than many other counties in the state,” Higgins said. “While the citizens of Centre County endured much financial, emotional and physical hardship, we helped each other. We supported our local businesses and nonprofits so that many are still viable organizations. As a community, we worked together, showed our better nature and cared about each other. With the recovery starting, we must continue working together toward a better future.
“In terms of our economy, we were in a great spot prior to the pandemic,” Pipe said. We were about to launch a renewed marketing effort that was going to bring in a lot of people to travel here to set our county to a stay visit, shop and play county within our region. And right as the pandemic hit that rebranding from the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau really came to a grinding halt to tourism. And so I was really excited by the fact that I think, as we see the summer approach — as the president said recently — by July 4, we’ll be able to have a lot of gatherings. And in terms of the football season that’s upcoming, I think you’re going to see it look very, very, very much like what we’re used to, as we come into the late summer and fall.
Pipe said it is a good sign that despite all the difficulties of the last year, there are still investments being made in Centre County, such as at the Nittany Mall, where one new anchor store recently opened, another is set to open this year and Bally’s plans to open a category 4 casino.
“People are still making good bets on Centre County in terms of investing,” Pipe said. “We’ve also monitored the housing market here in Centre County. It’s down slightly from last year, but it’s by no means what happened in the 2007, 2008 and 2009 declines … so I think we will be in a very good place to rebound from this. The business community has stuck together incredibly well.”
“Everybody has pulled together to help out our local businesses and nonprofits,” Higgins said. “There have been multiple benefit concerts from the musicians who haven’t been making any money to start with and here they are volunteering their time to raise money for important groups. There’s been the local Chamber of Commerce and the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau, who put together a list of restaurants for takeout, encouraging people to shop in their local downtowns during the holidays.
“I just see what’s happened here in Centre County and contrast it to what’s happened in some other counties where maybe people are a little more fearful or not thinking of the future, because we are going to get out of this.”
With restaurants now able to open to 75 percent capacity, and vaccines becoming more widely available, all three commissioners are hopeful for the county as life moves forward.
“You think about the first time you go to a store without a mask, or the first time you go into restaurants and it’s packed, and it sort of feels a little odd or strange,” Pipe said.
“But I think by the end of the year, we’re going to be holding events again that we always do here in Centre County … and I think it’ll be very emotional.”
Vincent Corso is the senior staff writer for The Centre County Gazette