Virus Outbreak Pennsylvania

Stylist Kayla Addink arranges a place for one of the bottles of alcohol used as a disinfectant in her workspace, Thursday, June 4, 2020, as she prepares for her first day back on the job at the West View Barber Shop when most of southwest Pennsylvania loosens COVID-19 restrictions on Friday in West View, Pa.

(The Center Square) – When Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced the next round of counties healthy enough to move into the green phase of his economic reopening plan last week, few expected the administration would hold back just one.

Lebanon County – more than 100 miles from the epicenter of the state’s outbreak in Philadelphia – made headlines weeks earlier for pushing forward into the yellow phase without permission from the governor. That decision, said Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, exacerbated cases in the area and made it impossible for her to recommend it progress to green phase on June 26.

“Lebanon County’s partisan, politically driven decision to ignore public health experts and reopen prematurely is having severe consequences for the health and safety of county residents,” Levine said Friday. “Case counts have escalated, and the county is not yet ready to be reopened.” 

As of Monday, Lebanon County reported more than 1,200 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 40 deaths. Statewide, nearly 80,000 residents have tested positive for the virus and more than 6,400 have died.

Four of the five counties that border Lebanon County have reported higher cases, and all have recorded more deaths, according to state data. All other counties will be in the administration’s green phase as of June 26, with several given permission to move forward earlier this month.

“Lebanon County has hindered its progress by reopening too early,” Levine said. “Because of this irresponsible decision, Lebanon County residents are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.”

State legislators representing the county called it nothing more than political retribution and encouraged residents to ignore the mandate. In a letter published Friday, Republican Reps. Russ Diamond and Sue Helm and GOP Sens. Dave Arnold and Frank Ryan called Levine’s statement “an absolute insult to equality and fair treatment” based on secret data they use to “bully those who do not comply or who challenge their authority.”

“The governor’s hypocritical march through the streets of Harrisburg, his inability to communicate his own guidelines, and nonsensical application of arbitrary metrics to reopen parts of Pennsylvania should all lead to only one conclusions,” the lawmakers said. “As far as we are concerned, the governor has lost all credibility of every aspect of his shutdown and deserves only to be ignored.”

Nate Wardle, spokesperson for the Department of Health, told The Center Square on Monday that Lebanon County’s cases counts are “not stable, decreasing or low” or showing a testing positivity rate under 10 percent.

“These data points can be determined through looking at the confirmed case counts for counties over the past 14 days, compared to the previous 14 days, and through looking at the number of positive test results, versus total tests in a county,” he said. 

Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz, on her Facebook page, encouraged residents to commit to a 14-day mask challenge and continue to social distance as a means of getting to green.

"We tried opening early and not wearing masks. That didn’t work," she said. "We’re in this together. We all want local businesses to open. Because I lived on my earnings as a small business person for many years, I truly understand the challenges facing businesses."

"We need to show Pennsylvania that we can lay politics aside and work together for the good of our fellow man," she added.

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.