Rural PA Leaders Fear Influx Of Infected People, Lack Of A Voice In Reopening Decisions

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PENNLIVE – The state’s out-of-the-blue decision to open trout season didn’t play well in some rural Pennsylvania counties. Normally, those counties welcome outsiders coming to fish and hunt and spend money.

But not in a pandemic.

“The ‘petri dish’ counties flocked into our counties to go fishing,” says Gary Eby, a commissioner in Perry County. “So you’re supposed to stay home, but it’s OK to go anywhere you want as long as your fishing pole is in the car?”

Eby and some of his rural Pennsylvania counterparts say the decision exemplifies state officials’ lack of understanding of their communities and of the consequences of decisions made far away in Harrisburg.

They worry it will play out again as the Gov. Tom Wolf administration decides when and where to ease the stay-at-home orders and closings of businesses and schools done in response to the new coronavirus. Mostly, they worry they won’t have a substantial say in the process.

Over the past week, Wolf has outlined a plan for reopening clusters of counties. He says decisions will be based largely on “evidence” related to things like local prevalence of COVID-19, hospital capacity and ability to detect and contain outbreaks. He says decisions will have to be partly “subjective,” but he’s open to “criticisms, ideas, suggestions, thoughts.”

Some rural leaders say Wolf has shown little interest in their views.

“Nobody has communicated with us. They just do what they want to do and we have to live with it,” says Alan Hall, a commissioner in Susquehanna County.

Eby says, “He has basically said he’s going to reopen the state the way he closed it, without any input at all.”

Clinton County Commissioner Jeff Snyder says he’s heard Wolf’s explanations of the things like the red, yellow and green designations to be assigned to regions, and the decision-making role of scientific tools from Carnegie Mellon University.

But he says, “What’s the plan? I really haven’t seen the plan.”

Still, neither Snyder nor commissioners from four other rural counties interviewed last week say they want sole authority for reopening their counties.

They mostly want to know the state has ground-level understanding of their local circumstances.

“We have to get some of our small businesses open or they are not going to reopen,” Snyder says. “We are very much hoping the governor reaches out to us as county commissioners for our input on how that can happen … So far it’s been pretty much a one-way street.”

Rural counties tend to have only smatterings of COVID-19 cases. They will likely reopen well before parts of the state with high infection numbers. A common worry in rural counties is that people from areas that are still closed will be drawn to their reopened businesses and attractions and import coronavirus. That’s why they were alarmed by the decision to open trout season, although their fears of spikes in infections don’t seem to have materialized.

But the fact it happened annoys Hall, who says about a quarter of Susquehanna County properties are owned by people from out-of-county or out-of-state. Many flocked there early in the pandemic and haven’t left, according to Hall. “We begged everyone to stop them from coming in … the governor refused to do that,” he says.

Spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger says local input has mattered to Wolf throughout the pandemic.

“The administration discussed the proposed reopening plan with state and local government representatives prior to the announcement, and just as the administration worked with local officials on the implementation of the state’s mitigation tactics and closures, a similar process will be implemented with reopening as outlined in [the official plan],” she said.

Some rural officials would rather leave the big decisions to Wolf.

“All along I was a bit aghast that some folks wanted to put us in charge of making those decisions,” says Potter County Commissioner Barry Hayman. “The simple fact is I’m not qualified to make those decisions. Those with greater experience in public health are probably the ones who should be making that decision.”

One rural commissioner says he and his counterparts are feeling pressure from business owners and others suffering extreme financial pain, and some might find it easiest to blame Wolf.

Still, the commissioners interviewed for this article were mostly complimentary of Wolf’s handling of the outbreak.

“I think it’s clear what he put in place stopped the spread of this pandemic in most of the counties very well,” says Snyder, the Clinton County official. He noted the state has provided personal protective equipment for local first responders and “we greatly appreciate that.”

Centre County Commissioner Mike Pipe says Wolf’s decisions “were tough for us to see implemented, but it has saved lives.” He says the Wolf administration has told county officials their region is on course to be among the first “yellow” regions with loosened restrictions beginning May 8. He says he and fellow commissioners are stressing to residents that if they continue to wash hands and keep up the other infection control tactics, they can be among the first to attain the “green” status of having most restrictions removed.

Talking to rural officials leaves no doubt about the suffering in their communities, even with few COVID-19 cases. In many of those areas, there are few economic drivers beyond schools and hospitals and no corporate presence. Many residents farm or work at tiny businesses which are “marginal” during normal times, with little hope of surviving weeks of forced closure.

In Susquehanna County, an effort run by county commissioners fed 635 households on a single day last week, providing ingredients for breakfast, lunch and dinner, according to Hall. It’s one of multiple efforts to provide food for people who have lost their livelihoods. “There is such a demand for food right now,” he says.

In Perry County, commissioners furloughed 30 county employees. “We could not have our local taxpayers paying people to stay home under a governor’s order,” Eby says.

In Centre County, Penn State has furloughed some employees and there’s talk of layoffs, according to Pipe. The county’s population is down by 30,000 because students are home.

 

PA Post is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom that covers politics and policy in Pennsylvania. Read their reporting at PaPost.org.