During their latest shelter-in-place Zoom meeting, the Lebanon County Commissioners discussed the possibility of returning to pre-COVID, in-person meetings and talked about scenarios for county businesses to re-open.
Commissioner Bill Ames opened the discussion by asking fellow Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz and Chairman Bob Phillips to look into “returning to work in an expanded way.”
Easing restrictions while maintaining social distancing is a tightrope situation throughout the nation right now, with various factions having opinions of what is safe to do, and when.
“We need to gradually ramp up while taking all possible safety precautions,” Ames said.
The other two commissioners were not on board with opening the county before they felt it was safe to do so.
“I’m not ready to move ahead with that,” Litz said. “As a public official, we’re here to help protect the public … there is a matrix out there that looks for less than 50 new cases in 14 days [before opening a business] … and we are nowhere near that.”
As of Wednesday, May 6, Lebanon County had 785 cases of COVID, with 16 reported deaths.
That same day, Pennsylvania cases topped more than 50,000, with 2,400 deaths statewide.
“To open everything back up isn’t possible right now,” Litz said. “We have too many cases.”
Ames didn’t have much faith in those numbers, saying they were “arbitrarily established, not scientifically done,” and asked solicitor Dave Warner about compiling the latest safety information to see what businesses could open.
“We’re waiting to hear from the state for guidance on what is allowable,” Warner said.
Chairman Bob Phillips also stressed the need to exercise caution when possibly exposing the public to a highly contagious, possibly fatal disease.
“I don’t want to be responsible for going against the healthcare folks,” Phillips said. “We don’t have enough knowledge to go in that direction. “Have you conferred with WellSpan or the VA hospital?” Phillips asked Ames. “Consider what would happen if we overburden and if it goes the wrong way … we need to get a weigh-in by the healthcare providers in this county.”
County Administrator Jamie Wolgemuth said the Lebanon County prison currently has 12 cases of COVID, with nine inmates and three medical staff that have tested positive for COVID-19.
The inmates remain in the facility and have been quarantined, Wolgemuth said. When they test negative, they’ll be re-integrated into prison life.
“The symptoms are not severe at this point so they have not been taken out of the facility,” Wolgemuth said.
Ames also entertained the notion of having Wolgemuth draw up a resolution to ease county businesses into opening again.
“We would be going on shaky ground if we pass that resolution now,” Litz said.
While the municipal building is still officially closed, the treasurer’s office is processing payments and residents can call the sheriff’s office to make an appointment, if needed.
Phillips said he has received complaints about calls not being answered by the treasurer’s office.
A lock box is stationed at the rear of the municipal building so that tax payments and other bills can be brought to the building without actually going inside, talking to anyone, or touching anything.
The planning department has increased services since the state’s construction industry has been allowed back to work.
“Our departments are meeting the needs that have been asked of them,” Wolgemuth said.
While county courts are still closed to the public in most cases and the closure date has been extended until the end of May by Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas President Judge John Tylwalk, the court system is still functioning for emergency cases, Warner said.
Phillips asked if the other commissioners would be interested in having a workshop to discuss opening county businesses.
Ames agreed that feedback would be a good idea, and withdrew his request for a motion for a resolution.
“We’ll talk to healthcare providers and see what we should do,” Ames said.
In other business, Michael Anderson, chief of voter registration, said his department has received more than 9,000 applications to vote by mail.
“We do want to encourage people to vote by mail,” Anderson said.
This year, masks will be available for citizens at every polling place, Anderson said.
“We will be requesting all people who can vote to wear masks,” Anderson said. “It’s a legal issue at this point, but we don’t want to take away anybody’s right to vote.”
All poll workers will be wearing protective masks or face coverings, too, in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Wolgemuth said he has heard concerns of folks not wanting to work in the polling places if they don’t have the proper protective gear.
The voting bureau is in the process of seeking alternate locations to replace two polling places.
The Stone Ridge retirement community in Myerstown will not be used as a polling place for Jackson East this year, because they are on strict lockdown, Anderson said.
It’s possible that one of the buildings in the ELCO School District will be used instead, although permission has yet to be granted.
The second polling place to be changed is the Bible Fellowship Church on Mill Street for the North Cornwall South area. A building of the Lebanon Valley Expo Center will likely be used in place of the church, Anderson said, explaining that church officials decided not to have any activities there at present.
Anderson is also reaching out to anyone who wants to work the polls on voting day.
“We are in need of poll workers. We need help in the city, in Swatara Township and in Annville Township,” Anderson said. “Those are three areas where we really need some help.”
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Full Disclosure: The campaigns of Bill Ames, Bob Phillips, and Jo Ellen Litz were advertisers on LebTown during the previous election cycle. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here. Additionally, David Warner has a financial interest in the ownership of LebTown’s parent company Lebanon Publishing Company. He has no involvement in editorial operations, including this article.