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County opening may not face delay

After mixed messages Sunday and Monday, officials on Tuesday made it clear the state won’t necessarily use health districts as the basis for reopening the economy from the coronavirus shutdown — giving Blair County hope its own reopening might not be delayed for being grouped with counties that have high recent infection rates.

There is even an indication that Blair could be in play for May 8, when the inaugural reopenings will occur, according to one local lawmaker.

“I’m not sure how the impression came about that we were just looking at health regions,” Wolf said during a teleconference with reporters Tuesday. “We’re not stuck with any one (idea) of what a region is.”

About an hour later, during the state Department of Health’s daily webcast, Health Secretary Rachel Levine acknowledged what the governor said, when a reporter asked why a county with a low recent infection count would need to wait to reopen until other counties in its health district group reduce their infection rates.

“The governor has said he’s not beholden to any specific map or schema,” Levine said.

Rather, counties within regions that meet “quantitative and qualitative factors” will be considered for reopening, Levine said.

Afterward, the department would be “pleased to discuss” how its reopening decisions were made, the secretary said.

“Counties will be looked at individually, but also as a part of the region they are in,” stated a department spokeswoman after the webcast, in an emailed answer to a question about whether regional groupings of any sort will be the basis for reopening, or whether reopenings would happen county-by-county or whether there would be a mix of approaches.

Despite what the governor said, the state had clearly been planning to use the health districts as the basis for reopening.

In answer to an emailed question Friday, a department spokesman stated: “The community health districts have been in place for many years, and while they are somewhat arbitrary, that is what is being used to determine regions. However, we will certainly be looking at other factors as well, as part of the process to reopen Pennsylvania.”

Those “other factors” include enough capacity to do testing for infections, tracing of close contacts of those who become infected and capacity in hospitals to handle potential outbreaks, officials have said.

The state is working on developing a “benchmark” for testing capability, enough to inspire confidence among employers, employees and customers to return to normal life, although with protections like masks and social distancing, according to Levine.

“We want to focus on keeping people safe,” Wolf said Tuesday. “That is what is going to be guiding us.”

Lawmakers hopeful

Blair County’s state lawmakers, all Republicans who favor a county-by-county reopening, have pushed against the health district plan, which grouped Blair with 12 counties to the southeast — including seven with new COVID cases over the previous 14 days (as of Sunday) that exceeds the threshold of 50 cases per 100,000 people for reopening, a threshold the state had said would be required for every county in a region.

While it’s no longer certain that reopenings will be regional, or if so, based on what kinds of regions, the 50-case threshold will still apply, Levine said Tuesday.

“It would be unlikely that a county that doesn’t meet (that threshold) would still be allowed to reopen,” Levine said.

In recent days, though, the secretary has deemphasized that criterion, a minimization expressed in the departmental email Tuesday, in which the spokeswoman wrote, “the metric of rate per 100,000 is only one small part of determining when a region will reopen.”

While it’s good that the Democratic governor may be moving toward a county-by-county approach, under pressure from Republican lawmakers, the waffling is “ludicrous,” said State Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona.

The COVID crisis may be the biggest challenge in state government in his lifetime, yet “we have governor and a secretary of health who can’t get their act together,” Schmitt said.

“I’m sick and tired of having to make assumptions on how this reopening is going to work,” he said.

Scene from ‘Peanuts’

Dealing with the changing information makes State Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg, feel like Charlie Brown of the comic strip “Peanuts” when Lucy yanks away the football she was holding for him to kick, Gregory said.

Still, Gregory is hopeful the governor’s expected decision Thursday and announcement Friday about which areas to reopen May 8 will “go some way toward relieving the pressure and anxiety people (in this area) are feeling.”

“I will try one more time to believe that when I go to kick the football on May 8, it (the football) will still be there,” he said.

“People would feel better if they had more information on what the plan is,” said State Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair. “It’s very unsettling for businesses and our citizens to not know what’s happening.”

The state doesn’t plan to restrict travel to reopened counties from other counties or states, Wolf said Tuesday in answer to a question that suggested residents of New York City, epicenter of the U.S. pandemic, might seek refuge in the Poconos. “I don’t see that that is constitutional or even fair,” Wolf said.

Free travel is “part of living in a democracy,” Levine said.

However, the state is not ruling out reverting to a shutdown if there’s a post-reopening outbreak, Wolf said.

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