In Governor Wolf’s June 19 announcement on Pennsylvania’s Covid-19 restrictions, he announced that 66 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties will go to “Green” status on June 26, if they have not done so already. That status lifts all travel restrictions, allows most retail businesses to reopen (with restrictions), and permits outdoor gatherings of up to 250 people. Chester County, where Kendal is located, is one of the counties headed for Green on the 26th.
There is only one county that will remain officially in the more restrictive Yellow status: Lebanon County, located between Reading and Harrisburg, roughly an hour and a half from Kendal. What makes Lebanon County so exceptional that it alone warrants staying in Yellow status? There are two answers.
The data. Looking at the data tables in the Philadelphia Inquirer, you can see that there are arguments to be made both for and against reopening Lebanon County. The county has not been hit has hard as some: with 865 cases per 100,000 residents so far in the pandemic, it ranks tenth among Pennsylvania counties; and with 40 deaths per 100,000, it ranks 20th on that metric.
But Covid-19 has been surging recently in Lebanon County. In the most recent 14-day period, it has had 145 cases per 100,000 residents, which is by far the highest of any county. Of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, only one other county (Susquehana County at 112 cases per 100,000) had over 100 cases per 100,000. Lebanon County’s high frequency of new cases is a good argument for not fully reopening the county just yet.
The politics. On May 15, in defiance of Wolf’s restrictions, the Lebanon County commissioners voted 2-1 to ignore Wolf’s reopening schedule. The resolution they approved permitted businesses to open whenever they wished as long as they followed CDC guidelines. This provoked an angry response from Wolf. It is unclear to what extent Lebanon County businesses actually did operate in violation of the Red phase guidelines, but some apparently did.
In Wolf’s announcement on the 19th, he mentions the increase in Covid-19 cases as the reason Lebanon County cannot move to Green. In this announcement, he has nothing good to say about the county’s actions. His statement quotes Secretary of Health Rachel Levine: “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. Case counts have escalated and the county is not yet ready to be reopened. Lebanon County has hindered its progress by reopening too early. Because of this irresponsible decision, Lebanon County residents are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.”
Lebanon County’s Harrisburg delegation (all four are Republicans) were furious. They wrote an open letter suggesting (without evidence) that the Wolf administration might have fudged the Covid-19 data to punish the county: “We are all ardent supporters of transparency in government, and we can all see right through this punitive decision. They (Wolf and Levine) own the so-called ‘data’, they disseminate the ‘data’, they use this same ‘data’ to bully those who do not comply or who challenge their authority. Unfortunately, we have no way of verifying the accuracy of their ‘data’….”
There is, however, little they can do to change the situation. In May, Wolf vetoed three bills that would have limited his ability to impose restrictions on businesses during the pandemic, and there were not enough votes to override the veto.