Funding for Lebanon County Businesses

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard that Governor Wolf is withholding nearly $13 million of CARES funding from Lebanon County. I’ve been wrestling with what to say about this, and indeed, whether to say anything at all. Even in the best of times, this would be bound for the “partisan politics as usual” argument, with the heroes and villains cast according to your own personal political viewpoint. And these are not the best of times.

My focus is on the folks who are suffering because of this. The vast majority of Lebanon Countians, particularly our small business owners, followed the rules – even those who didn’t agree with them. They stayed the course, they implemented changes according to the guidelines, and they sacrificed to keep our community safe. And now, because of actions outside of their control, they’re not receiving benefits that should be available to them.

I’m writing to Governor Wolf to ask for his consideration on this matter. As you can imagine, the title “Democratic candidate for the 102” added to my name gives me a lot of clout, especially in our gerrymandered district. But it’s the least I can do.

And, partisan politics or not, this result was completely predictable. Read the statement from the governor on May 11. He clearly said that counties who acted outside the state’s guidance for reopening would sacrifice, among other things, their CARES funding. Lebanon wasn’t the only county to threaten to move themselves ahead of the timetable, but we were the only ones who actually did so. Two of our county commissioners, our state representatives, our state senator, and even our district attorney voted for or encouraged this action. Now, as the consequences for those actions come due, their only recourse is further blame and recriminations, and the threat of yet another lawsuit – which still does nothing right now to help our neighbors.

Most discouraging in all this is that it didn’t have to be this way. Imagine if this energy and effort had been put into amplifying testing efforts, messaging effective science-based practices, creating contact tracing protocols, and ensuring that quarantine measures could and would be followed. This virus doesn’t care if you’re a Republican or Democrat and it still won’t after this latest battle ends. Well just have fewer resources to fight it with.

So: wear a mask, wash your hands, and watch your distance. And make sure to vote in November. We’re seeing, right now, how our local elections have impacted our community. It’s time for a change.


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We Must Have a Plan for Reopening

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).

Source: https://lebcogis.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html?fbclid=IwAR08iyMfLkaB976JW0QC4GRdbOHQ3oe_9zoztM2JC-Uykojar8l-xHNl2Vo#/180580f672544d1382b6bb745ccba441

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.

Our Reopening Must Prioritize Safety and Health

I had written these thoughts early yesterday. In the meantime, our state representative, along with several other Republican county officials, announced their intention to “reopen” Lebanon County, science and reason be damned.

In case you don’t read any further, let me say: this is anarchy, in defiance of rule and order. Because they didn’t get their way, they decided to operate outside of the government that they themselves are a part of. They could have worked to reassure their constituents, introduce legislation to help people weather this storm, all while still advocating for better executive practices and more transparent communication. Instead, they are recklessly acting in defiance. Make no mistake, this will result in people dying needlessly.

Here are the rest of my thoughts. The latest publicity stunt, with no explanation of how employees and customers will be protected during this rogue reopening, is merely more of the same. Representative Diamond could have been amplifying good things happening, while still advocating for even broader changes – but he chose not to. People on social media are asking when they can buy cars again. They already can. If you don’t believe me, call one of your local car dealerships or visit their websites. Right down the street from me, and from our representative, our local cabinetry store is reopened. Not only that, they’re advertising for help, with an offer to train someone. There is not a whisper of this progress in his statements.

My opponent recently made a splash on social media by rebelling against the State Department of Health’s guidelines for wearing masks while out in public. The DoH, following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommends that everyone wear a mask when they’re going to be out, and requires one for workers and customers who are inside a physical business location. A careful reading of the guidelines makes this clear. Our representative, however, proudly declared that he had been shopping without a mask and provided an interview to a local television station describing his flouting of the rules.

Science is not fixed or static, especially when dealing with a novel coronavirus. Have guidelines and recommendations shifted? Have models been refined as more data becomes available? Of course. That is how science works. Dr. Levine has acknowledged this. US Surgeon General Jerome Adams has acknowledged this. The guidelines and outlook on January 20, when there was only one confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States, were much different than they are on May 7, when we have (according to Johns Hopkins University) 1,200,000 confirmed cases and 68,100 deaths. Here in Lebanon County, we have 785 confirmed cases – and still climbing. At least 12 people have died. 2,986 people have tested negative. There are over 140,000 people in the county. That means only 2% of our population have even been tested.

This isn’t a time for party politics. Several bipartisan bills have been passed, such as House Bill 2455 and Senate Bill 841, to help Pennsylvania by doing things like allowing online notary services and prioritizing testing for first responders and health care workers. No reasonable person – Republican, Democrat, Independent, or other – wants to see our economy tank, our businesses fail, our workers left without income. Now, of all times, we should seize the opportunity to work together and accomplish more than we can divided.

Which is why it’s disappointing to see somebody in a position of power model dangerous behavior and spout divisive rhetoric. People on social media, responding to the hyperbolic and rabble-rousing posts of my opponent, called for citizens to use their 2nd amendment rights to clean house in Harrisburg and suggested that Governor Wolf should be hanged. They made offensive comments about Dr. Levine and questioned her expertise. My opponent blocked and deleted comments from those voicing dissent, while ignoring and thereby tacitly supporting these dangerous and counter-productive posts. He has also failed to update his constituents on the progress that has been made.

He also spoke at a rally at the statehouse to reopen the state prematurely. Like many of the protestors, he didn’t wear a mask. They also didn’t practice social distancing. To be clear, I support our right to protest. But contrast the pictures of protestors practicing social distancing in Tel Aviv with those in Harrisburg. The first makes a much more powerful statement that is harder to dismiss, while the second should be an embarrassment for everyone involved.

It’s easy to announce the reopening of businesses. However, that doesn’t ensure that workers or customers will feel safe working in, or patronizing, those businesses. Which is why steady, thoughtful leadership is so important. Unfortunately, we now have a number of case studies from countries around the world identifying what works, as well as what doesn’t, in resuming a more normal life. The lessons we should have learned, and be striving to enact here in Pennsylvania, include: social distancing when possible, wearing masks when not, widely testing using rapid and reliable tests, providing appropriate personal protective equipment to workers (and especially healthcare workers), and using contact tracing to identify and quarantine those who are infected or have been exposed to an infected individual. Doing these things will allow us to reopen sooner, and remain open. What my state representative is suggesting – a free-for-all where you follow whatever rules you believe are best for you—is self-defeating and will result in more unnecessary deaths, along with endless cycles of closing and re-opening.

In the meantime, though, he can serve as a hero to those who believe our only responsibility is to do what is most convenient for ourselves, and let the rest of the world be damned.