Gov. Tom Wolf (D) made it official Friday that Lehigh, Northampton and the other eight counties that are still in the restrictive “red” phase of Pennsylvania’s coronavirus shutdown are slated to move to the yellow phase of reopening at 12:01 a.m. next Friday, June 5. And in a news release he noted that “counties that remain in red…are expected to move to yellow by June 5.”
A local state senator, however, took to her media channels to voice her opinion that the expected and highly-anticipated move doesn’t represent enough progress, fast enough, for local businesses.
State Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-18), who represents parts of Lehigh and Northampton counties, previously pressed for an earlier reopening of both counties. She continued to do so stridently both in her email newsletter and via a news release Friday.
“It’s just about June – It is NOW TIME TO OPEN up more more businesses in the Lehigh Valley” was the headline on the newsletter, which was accompanied by a Boscola infographic featuring her photo and the words “I stand with businesses.”
“Too many businesses are locked out from opening in the restricted phases of the Governor’s plan,” Boscola said. “It is incumbent upon us as policy makers to remain adaptive and flexible on how we move forward based on what experts learn about the virus.”
She said there are inconsistencies within the rules that pertain to which businesses can open–and when–that need to be corrected.
“Right now, even in the most restricted phase, you can get botox injections or dental work but you can’t get a haircut or your nails done,” Boscola said. “You can stand in the long lines at big box stores, but you can’t visit a small retail shop. Starting Friday, you can swim in a public pool but only eat outside at a restaurant.”
Under the yellow phase of the governor’s order, the maximum size for gatherings will increase from 10 to 25 people and many retail businesses will be allowed to reopen with restrictions in place. In addition to offering curbside pickup and delivery, restaurants will be able to seat patrons in socially-distanced outdoor seating areas.
Boscola, however, said she essentially fears that the changes that are coming will amount to too little, too late, for many businesses in the area.
“Waiting too long to open these businesses might make the hill for them to climb insurmountable,” she wrote. “Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association is reporting that 30 percent of restaurants will not re-open.”
In fact, the owner of a bar and restaurant in Lower Saucon Township, Northampton County, announced Friday that his business will not reopen when the state allows it to as a result of losses sustained during the state-mandated shutdown.
Boscola continued to cite two local infectious disease experts in her email Friday, who she said convinced her several weeks ago that the reopening of the Lehigh Valley was happening too slowly.
Although one of the two doctors later told another local news outlet he felt his opinions had been mischaracterized, and tried to distance himself from what has become an increasingly highly politicized subject, Boscola’s email did not acknowledge that fact.
“Dr. (Jeffrey) Jahre of St. Luke’s and Dr. (Luther) Rhodes of Lehigh Valley Hospital, infectious disease specialists treating patients with COVID-19, shared the opinion that more businesses could open provided people follow appropriate social distancing, mask wearing and other CDC guidelines,” she said.
In particular she said businesses like barbershops, restaurants and gyms, should be allowed to reopen sooner due to improvements in testing capabilities and a decrease in COVID-19 related hospitalizations.
Boscola’s latest letter makes no reference to any coronavirus statistics such as recent case counts in the counties she represents. Overall, there has been a decline in the number of new cases being reported daily, although spikes such as one in Northampton County on Thursday continue to occur. The 62 new cases reported Thursday were the most in more than two weeks in Northampton, per Pennsylvania Department of Health and county data.
“Today we have fewer positive cases, we have less hospitalizations and more testing, yet we continue to tell some businesses to wait,” Boscola said. “Experts believe more businesses can be open in the Lehigh Valley today. I trust them. I know that if given the opportunity businesses in the Lehigh Valley will do what they always do, they will adapt and succeed.”
One business owner who would no doubt agree with that assertion is Ed Frack, the owner of SuperSets gym on Schoenersville Road in Hanover Township, Lehigh County. After reopening against government orders and in spite of receiving a prior warning from Pennsylvania State Police, Frack was issued two citations by troopers at an event he held Sunday that was attended by dozens of people not wearing masks or social distancing.
The business is located within Boscola’s district, but wasn’t referenced in the update.
The Wolf administration, for its part, has said it is relying on scientists and other experts to determine when counties may progress from red to yellow or yellow to green. It has also distanced itself from a metric it was formerly using to help determine when counties can move from the red to the yellow phase. That formula was based on a county reporting 50 or fewer new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents in a two-week period.
“The state continues to use risk-based metrics from Carnegie Mellon University, combined with contact tracing and testing capability and a sustained reduction in COVID-19 hospitalizations, to make decisions on county moves,” Wolf said Friday. “The 50 new cases per 100,000 population continues to be a consideration, but not a sole deciding factor.”
Since counties no longer need to meet that goal to proceed with reopening–and it is possible Lehigh and Northampton won’t have by June 5–it remains unclear what if any other measurements could potentially derail the counties’ progress toward reopening.
The other counties Wolf said are slated to move from red to yellow June 5 are Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, Chester, Lancaster, Berks and Lackawanna, all of which have had some of the highest COVID-19 case counts and death tolls among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.