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Huntingdon endures trying times during COVID-19

HUNTINGDON — This community has known better weeks.

Many of its small businesses, deemed nonessential by Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home edict to guard against the spreading of the coronavirus, are still closed as the county remains red while its neighboring Blair, Centre, Bedford and Mifflin counties were granted yellow status and reopened.

An organized protest took place Monday at the county courthouse, hours after a massive fire swept through two historic buildings, gutting the three-story Electric Motor Service Inc. and displacing more than 100 elderly residents in the adjacent Blair House apartments.

More than 50 area fire companies, including from Blair County, responded to prevent an even greater tragedy.

Longtime townies watched in tears from behind protective fencing as the structures started to be cleared.

“2020’s been a rough start for everyone,” Huntingdon Police Chief Jeff Buckley said quietly outside his office on Wednesday.

Both of the county’s two Republican commissioners, Mark Sather and Scott Walls, signed a letter to Wolf urging a move to yellow status. Others, such as District Attorney Dave Smith and state Sens. Judy Ward, R-Blair, and Jake Corman, R-Centre, and state Rep. Rich Irvin, R-Huntingdon, did, too.

Democratic commissioner Jeff Thomas, who didn’t return a call for comment, declined.

“Because Blair and Centre County were put in the yellow phase, and we were still in the red has a lot of people upset,” said longtime Huntingdon resident John Los. “Some of the people I’ve talked to — they think it’s very political. This is a very Republican county, and our governor is a Democrat. And there is some political divide here.”

Equally notable to those who would like to get Huntingdon County restarted is the fact that of the 204 reported cases as of noon Friday of the virus, 187 are traced to the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon inmates and staff.

“Outside of the prison, we’ve had very small number of cases,” Juniata College President Jim Troha said. “I know that’s some consternation with our businesses here and some legislators. Everybody wants to have some normalcy return, and I think it’s the uncertainty that’s causing the angst.”

“The prison system is what has driven our numbers up,” Jerry Rucker of the Acco Plant in Alexandria, one of the county’s bigger employers, said. “For the longest time, we were very low (in numbers), and then we had the spike in the prison.”

Zucker, though, acknowledged “good communication” within his operation.

Buckley said Huntingdon is monitoring businesses that have inquired on the penalties for opening before the governor lifts the shutdown order, but other regional counties, like Bedford, does not plan to issue citations.

“We’ve seen more and more people at least exploring their options,” Buckley said. “We’ve looked to the DA for guidance — he’s the one with prosecutorial discretion — and he’s told us he’s not interested in prosecuting business owners.”

Zucker called Acco’s three-shift work force “tremendous,” adding the staff “has a good understanding of our business, but this has been a distraction. The majority are happy to be working, and there are others who are more concerned” and have raised compliance questions.

He said the plant has increased its cleansing, staggered breaks and “we just rolled out temperature taking.”

Troha said unless dictated otherwise due to statewide or federal mandate, Juniata College is moving forward on plans for its students to return in the fall.

He said the school will test “100 percent of our faculty and staff, and we’re also trying to figure out the safety of our students and that may mean testing them as well. Testing will be critical.”

He said the cost of testing would be absorbed by the college.

Troha said Juniata is currently working with a local company, Contamination Source Idenitifcation, which the Food and Drug Administration approved in March to start testing for COVID-19.

“It’s to our benefit that they can do the testing and have turnaround time in a matter of a day,” Troha said.

Troha said Juniata already has smaller class sizes, which may help with mitigation, and the school is considering all options.

“Do our larger classes meet online?” he said. “We’ll likely have to eat in different time settings. I think there are ways we can mitigate the risks that will be a larger challenge at a larger institution.”

With a daughter who just graduated virtually from Juniata and a son set to play college football at Ursinus, Troha understands that parents need reassurance.

“Our students want to come back, and I think our parents want this to work as long as we’re putting a plan in to mitigate risks,” he said. “That’s going to be our effort over the next couple months. We’re putting together all kinds of different scenarios — whether there will be delay, whether we start on time.”

Botton line, he said, “We’re a residential institution, and we think that’s the best way to get your education — among your peers.”

At the same time, Troha said, there are certain realities everywhere.

“What happens when somebody gets tested, and then goes to Walmart?” he said. “How do we protect our bubble here and with having 1,500 students and another 400 faculty-staff?”

Adding to Juniata’s consideration is “we accept students from all over the world — from some of the hot spots, and what are we going to do to protect the Huntingdon community? If there’s going to be anxiousness, it will be with any return plans we have. We’re trying to lean into these challenges and prepare like we are opening. Until we’re told we can’t … we intend to be here.”

The businesses are eager, as Buckley said some gymnasiums in particular are anxious because they’ve seen other regional facilities open.

“Walmart is operating, which is good, but the small businessman is being told his business can’t be open,” Los said. “The longer it takes, it really works on these people even more.”

Acco produces school notebooks, so it’s keeping its fingers crossed as well.

“Hopefully,” Rucker said, “we’ll move to yellow sooner than later.”

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