There is growing debate in some circles about Gov. Tom Wolf’s three-phase reopening plan; a plan that was formulated in response to the economic shutdown that began in March as part of an effort to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus in the state.
Last week several Pennsylvania counties made good on their promise to move to the yellow phase of the reopening plan without the consent of the state–in spite of Wolf’s warning that they may face negative consequences–and now pushback as well as discussions about a rapider reopening are reaching the municipal government level.
Lower Saucon Township Council is poised to consider a resolution Wednesday in support of a May 8 letter by state Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-18) to Wolf in which she requested that Northampton and Lehigh counties be moved to the yellow phase “immediately.”
The resolution calls her request “reasoned and informed” and notes that it was “supported by two separate local infectious disease specialists.”
Dr. Luther Rhodes of Lehigh Valley Health Network and Dr. Jeffrey Jahre of St. Luke’s University Health Network are the doctors whose advice Boscola cited, however Jahre has since “walked back” the endorsement as she characterized it, according to WFMZ.
“(Jahre) says the decision on whether to move into the yellow phase is more nuanced and he needs to see better objective data before the Valley can re-open safely,” WFMZ reported May 11. “He adds businesses also need strict social distancing standards that need to be enforced.”
Lower Saucon Township’s draft resolution says Jahre “offered unequivocal expert advice that the Lehigh Valley, including Lower Saucon Township, should be moved to the yellow phase of reopening” and includes no references to his subsequent comments.
According to the resolution, Wolf has not responded to Boscola’s letter, which was welcomed by some but criticized by others in her district. The 18th state senatorial district includes parts of both Lehigh and Northampton counties. Lower Saucon Township is located within the section of Northampton County Boscola represents.
Resolution #49-2020 is titled “Resolution of the Lower Saucon Township Council Supporting State Senator Lisa Boscola’s Efforts to Lift the Disaster Emergency Within Lower Saucon Township Due to COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic Effective May 21, 2020” and is three pages long.
A disaster emergency is different from the stay-at-home order issued by Wolf–which is what the reopening plan is a response to–and is not necessarily tied to the state’s three reopening phases.
Lehigh County officials recently noted that, when they extended their county’s state of emergency to July 17, which is well beyond when the county’s current stay-at-home order is set to expire on June 4. Northampton County is also under that order until June 4.
“(A) State of Emergency extension does not affect (the) Stay at Home Order,” Lehigh County officials emphasized in a Facebook post about the extension. “The State of Emergency does not mean a lockdown extension.”
Lower Saucon Township issued its Declaration of Disaster Emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 16. The declaration was ratified by council March 20 and subsequently extended on April 15.
Signed by council president Sandra Yerger, the March 16 declaration authorized township officials “to act as necessary to meet the current exigencies of this emergency.”
The resolution council is now set to vote on–as written–is for council to “offer its unconditional support of Senator Lisa Boscola’s reasoned and informed request to Governor Wolf to immediately dissolve the red phase order and move Lehigh and Northampton Counties, including Lower Saucon Township, to the yellow phase, immediately relaxing restrictions no later than May 21, 2020.”
It further notes that the township will continue to “require businesses to follow certain safety guidelines from the CDC and Department of Health.”
The resolution says that at township businesses “large gatherings of more than 25 people are discouraged.”
Under the current red phase of the state’s three-phased reopening, gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited, and officially they will remain prohibited in Northampton County until the state changes its status.
Under the state’s yellow phase, the maximum gathering size is 25 people instead of 10.
Gatherings of more than 25 people, however, are prohibited–not discouraged–under the yellow phase.
The township resolution further says that “outdoor, curbside, and delivery service and business will continue to be preferred” at local businesses that are in operation.
Under the state’s yellow phase, in-person retail sales are permitted, however certain types of businesses such as gyms and hair salons must remain closed, and restaurants/bars are still limited to selling food for carryout and delivery only. The draft township resolution does not differentiate between the types of businesses affected by it.
The township resolution does note that “businesses, especially businesses with state licenses, may still be subject to state laws and orders and may be subject to enforcement by state law enforcement.”
Wednesday’s council meeting will begin at 7 p.m. on Zoom. Instructions for registering as well as a link to register for the meeting (required) are on the township council webpage, along with the township’s recently updated public comment policy and procedure.