A state senator who represents portions of Northampton and Lehigh counties is calling on Gov. Tom Wolf to accelerate the reopening of the Lehigh Valley by moving the counties to the yellow phase of his COVID-19 recovery plan.
In a letter addressed to Wolf, state Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-18) Friday said she was relying on the expert advice of infectious disease doctors from St. Luke’s University Health Network and Lehigh Valley Health Network in making the request.
“Obviously, the decision of when to reopen any county or geographic area is not easy. So, I do not make this request lightly,” Boscola wrote. “I recognize a great deal goes into your determination, However, it is my belief that the expert opinions of the infectious disease specialists from the largest health care providers in the Lehigh Valley that state our region should be moved to the yellow phase of reopening should not be ignored.”
Wolf announced Thursday that a stay-at-home order for both counties was being extended until June 4. The order has been in place in the Lehigh Valley since March 25, and requires residents to stay home unless they are working at jobs deemed essential, shopping for food, picking up medicine or performing other activities considered “life-sustaining.”
On Friday, Wolf–a Democrat–announced that on May 15 more than a dozen southwestern Pennsylvania counties will move from the red phase of his stay-at-home order to an intermediary yellow phase that allows for more activity to take place, while public health and safety guidelines for things like social distancing remain in place.
He said the counties that won’t move to the yellow phase on May 15 would not have their status updated til after June 4, which ignited acts of rebellion among officials in some south central Pennyslvania counties.
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Republican county commissioners in Dauphin and Lebanon counties announced that they will move their counties to the yellow phase of the reopening on Friday regardless of whether it is authorized by the governor, and the Republican sheriff of Cumberland County said his office will not enforce business closures mandated by Wolf’s order.
“The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office will honor our solemn oath to Support, Obey and Defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth,” Sheriff Ronny Anderson said in a Facebook post that as of mid-day Saturday had been shared nearly 6,000 times. “Our Office will stand with the citizens in defense of all of our Constitutional Rights! Our Office will not be enforcing any ‘order’ that violates our Constitutional Rights.”
Dauphin County Board of Commissioners chairman Jeff Haste also used forceful language in a letter addressed to the “people of Pennsylvania” that compared Wolf to a dictator and said the livelihoods of many are wrongly being sacrificed by the governor to help save the lives of a few.
“Enough is enough,” wrote Haste. “It is time to reopen the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and return our state to the people (as prescribed by our Constitution) and not run it as a dictatorship.”
Boscola’s language was decidedly less confrontational, and she said she supported the advice of Dr. Luther Rhodes (LVHN) and Dr. Jeffrey Jahre (SLUHN); advice that “emphasized the need to continue to social distance, wear masks and validate that when we open more businesses there is not a surge in cases.”
“Dr. Rhodes noted in an interview with PBS-39 that he ‘couldn’t emphasize strongly enough’ that the Lehigh Valley should be in the yellow heading towards green,” Boscola said in her letter. “He feared that we are locked in the initial recoil of the virus.”
She added that in his interview with the public television station, Rhodes “noted that ‘there are no medical contra-indications at all to getting people out and about with common sense, with masks and social distancing.’ In fact, both (he and Jahre) agreed that with appropriate social distancing measures, such as masks and crowd limitations we could handle activities currently relegated to the green phase such as nail salons and hair-cuts.”
“It is critical that the public and business owners adhere to responsible social distancing
guidelines for the success of any re-opening plan,” Boscola said. “I believe the people of the Lehigh Valley understand the importance of social distancing practices and will adhere to them during this phase of the re-opening with the goal of getting to green.”
As of Saturday, Pennsylvania had more than 55,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, ranking it sixth among U.S. states for the most cases. Within the state however, there is considerable caseload disparity among counties, with the majority of cases–and deaths attributed to the disease–concentrated in the easternmost counties.
Among those counties are Lehigh and Northampton, which as of Saturday had 3,169 cases and 2,429 cases, respectively. Both counties have seen the growth rate of the disease among their populations decline significantly since social distancing and other measures to help “flatten the curve” were put into place in March and April, although both remain among the top seven Pennsylvania counties in terms of their total caseloads. As of Saturday, Lehigh had the sixth most cases and Northampton had the seventh most cases, behind Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks and Berks counties.
In Northampton County 158 residents have died from COVID-19 while in Lehigh County 120 residents have succumbed to the illness, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Both locally and statewide, many of the deaths have occurred in nursing homes. Worldwide, the majority of deaths from COVID-19 have occurred among the elderly, although in some cases the disease claims the lives of young people with no known underlying health conditions. Health experts are still trying to understand why.