Pennsylvania now has a plan for reopening parts of the commonwealth after a statewide shutdown to help limit the spread of the coronavirus, but with two weeks until a projected May 8 opening for two regions there are still many unknowns to iron out.
Gov. Tom Wolf introduced his Red-Yellow-Green three-phase plan during a video conference Wednesday night. Wolf said two regions in the state are slated to reopen on May 8 — the northwest and north-central regions. There is no firm date when Cumberland County and its fellow members of the south-central region could reopen.
There are caveats for reopening any region of the state: The number of COVID-19 tests that will be made available, the ability to conduct contact tracing and data over the next two weeks that could show a potential growth in confirmed cases.
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But a regional plan is of interest to some local officials.
Cumberland County Commissioner Gary Eichelberger said the commissioners as a group have not yet discussed Gov. Tom Wolf's reopening plan, but he said he thinks the regional approach is better than what some considered inconsistent closures of counties initially in the pandemic.
"It's good in that it seems to place emphasis on consistency and a regional approach," he said. "It's obviously trying to prevent the spread across borders."
Restrictions would remain
Eichelberger noted, however, that if and when Cumberland County and the south-central region move from Wolf's "red" shutdown category to a less strict "yellow" category, there would still be considerable restrictions on business under the plan.
In the less restrictive "yellow" category, businesses must continue telework where feasible, though some may open in-person operations if they can do so safely in their building, with encouragement toward curbside and delivery options for retail. Child care will reopen, since Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said residents going back to work will need access to child care. Schools will remain closed, long-term care and prison restrictions will remain in place and indoor recreation places (gyms included) and restaurants will remain closed.
For Cumberland County government, that means the furloughs county commissioners made official Thursday will continue to hold, even if the county receives the go-ahead to pull back some restrictions.
The commissioners voted to temporarily furlough 156 county employees, effective Sunday, with staffing limited to personnel needed to support required and mandated county functions, which Eichelberger said commissioners determined with the help of department heads. The move saves the county $335,000 per month.
The county said in a news release that it had to make the move because of reduced revenue and increased COVID-19 expenditures that included the purchase of personal protective equipment.
"Yellow [category] still involves restrictions," Eichelberger said. "The furloughs wouldn't end. We'll still operate on stringent requirements. Our furloughs will still be very relevant."
He said, however, that with Wolf's plan, he hopes the furloughs will not last as long as the worst case scenarios they brainstormed when creating a staff reduction/furlough plan from scratch this year. The county will also continue with telework that it had to establish quickly when the pandemic arrived.
"We were forced to learn fast, but we learned well," he said.
The restrictions that are still in place for the initial reopening in Wolf's plan isn't sitting well with those who believe businesses should reopen now across the state.
Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) on Thursday issued his own framework for reopening the state. Toomey argues most of the state should resume some level of economic activity immediately instead of waiting on regional openings, and that hospitals should resume elective procedures with safety benchmarks and expanded testing for health care workers and at nursing homes.
Toomey is a member of President Donald Trump’s bipartisan Opening Up America Again congressional group.
“No one plan will account for all the variables that we must address to open Pennsylvania in a gradual and safe manner," Toomey said in a statement. "I look forward to working with the Wolf administration on addressing these challenges.”
The Cumberland County Republican Committee echoed those economic sentiments, saying in a statement that Wolf should immediately open businesses that can operate while practicing the necessary preventative measures to maintain a safe workplace under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Carlisle Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Michelle Crowley said she also has concerns about the state of local business, saying some industries are being decimated. She said she believes companies will follow CDC guidelines if allowed to reopen.
“I don’t doubt for one minute that all these companies are going to be following the guidelines, if they understand them clearly and they can get the things necessary to do it,” she said. "I can't think of one business owner that doesn't want to reopen."
But, Crowley noted the need for everyone to be cognizant of the potential for the coronavirus to make a return if the region doesn't open properly. She said one key is for Wolf to provide clear guidance on what businesses need to do and what is required to keep workers safe.
"I'm a business owner anxiously ready to get back to some semblance of normal business for myself and my firm's clients," said Carlisle Deputy Mayor Sean Shultz, a lawyer. "We'll all have to do so in a way that's appropriate for the type of business we conduct. Restaurants and retail establishments will have a very different burden than a law office like mine because of the difference in foot traffic."
Some small businesses may also need some help as they prepare to reopen.
"We already have funds through the federal community development block grant program we can use," Carlisle Mayor Tim Scott said. "The federal stimulus package will be supplementing those funds. From the start of this in mid-March, we’ve been assessing local needs that will have to be met to revive businesses from their hibernation."
UPMC Pinnacle says it's ready to help out and prevent that viral resurgence from happening.
"The regional efforts at social distancing and other public health measures appear to be paying off, and we appreciate what everyone is doing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19," said Lou Baverso, president of UPMC Cumberland Region. "As we ease into Gov. Wolf's phased approach to reopening the commonwealth, UPMC will closely monitor the situation and continue to be vigilant and prepared for any changes. The communities we serve can be reassured that UPMC has structures and processes in place to leverage the full capacity of our health system to meet the needs of our patients."
Eichelberger said that though the county doesn't know when exactly it will reach the light at the end of the tunnel in this pandemic, he said Wolf's plan is a first step in letting residents see there is hope on the horizon.
"That's going to be encouraging," he said. "But we still need to move cautiously."
Sentinel Reporter Tammie Gitt contributed to this report.