Last week, I posted that our county should prioritize safety and health as we begin the process of reopening – knowing that it will, indeed, be a process – and one that takes some time. A number of our local elected officials stated that Lebanon County had satisfied all requirements and was moving to yellow, despite Governor Wolf’s legal declaration otherwise. (And, it should be noted, despite the fact that Lebanon County had not actually met the requirements to do so.)
The governor, naturally, responded. He outlined the probable consequences of such an action. His response was completely predictable, and while the posturing of our local officials may have scored with some folks, available data suggest that most Pennsylvanians believe the governor is handling this correctly and that we shouldn’t be moving too quickly.
How did writing the letter actually help local businesses and workers? In my opinion, it did not. In fact, if anything it has made it more likely that a business which reopens too soon will be met with serious consequences, and won’t have any excuse for not understanding what would happen.
Here in Lebanon County, a week ago we had 774 confirmed cases, with at least 12 deaths. 2,933 people had tested negative. Today, May 13, Johns Hopkins reports that Lebanon County has 849 positive cases, at least 16 deaths, and 3,362 negative tests.
That’s an increase for Lebanon of 75 positive tests in a week. A look at the graph shows that our new cases are climbing again. This is not the direction we want to go, and further highlights that there is still work to be done to get our community to a safer place. Currently, about 20% of tests are coming back positive, which also indicates that we’re not doing enough testing (areas that have been most successful have 10% or less of their tests coming back positive).
The letter last Friday, and subsequent posturing, was not a plan to reopen. A plan would address testing – both current and future. Does Lebanon County have the capacity to test widely/quickly/accurately? Can we ramp up testing if a “hot spot” emerges?
A plan would address personal protective equipment (PPE). Are local hospitals and medical professionals confident that they have the PPE necessary to support both our current level, as well as a possible outbreak? Are businesses aware of what PPE they should have for their employees? Their customers? Is there any support for businesses in regards to supplying PPE, especially to their workers?
A plan would make it clear how workers’ rights will be respected. Can workers take 14 days to self-quarantine if they are potentially exposed to COVID-19? Are they required to report to work, even if they are in an at-risk group? Will refusing to report for health reasons result in them losing the ability to claim unemployment insurance?
A plan would address customer safety. How should businesses respond to a customer who refuses to wear a mask or follow social distancing rules? Can businesses require customers to have a temperature screening or answer questions about their health before shopping? And what physical changes (screens, barriers, markings) should businesses make to keep their customers and employees safe?
Telling businesses they can reopen, but that they’re on their own in determining how to do so, is not a plan. Telling workers that they should ask their bosses about how they’ll be kept safe is not a plan. Telling customers “stay home if you don’t feel safe” is not a plan.
In the meantime, there are businesses that are open right now. Some of them are doing amazing things to prioritize employee and customer safety. Others, unfortunately, are not – and so the idea that “of course all businesses will be safe” is already proven false.
One argument has been that the guidance from the federal and state level has been unclear or missing. In some cases, that’s a valid complaint. In other cases, our local leaders have either failed to do their due diligence in reading and understanding the guidelines, or else have blatantly lied about the lack of information. These leaders could, in their various capacities, use their roles to provide a real plan for moving Lebanon forward, safely and responsibly. But they have not.
In a different situation, it might be interesting to see the results of this cavalier approach. But as it is, being wrong means the needless loss of lives, and a probable return to an even harsher lockdown. That’s a gamble some may be willing to take. I, for one, am not.