First Delaware and Bucks counties — now Chester.
Late Wednesday night, Chester county commissioners released a statement asking Gov. Tom Wolf for a move from the “red” shutdown phase into the “yellow” phase, allowing some business activity to resume with safety precautions in place, like social distancing and mask wearing.
“Chester County’s data indicates that we should be able to safely move to the yellow phase on June 4th, and that is what we are strongly urging the Governor to agree to,” the commissioners wrote.
The move makes the county the third of the four “collar” counties in the Delaware Valley to openly complain that the Wolf administration metrics for moving from red to yellow are too stringent — only Montgomery County has yet to join in. It also sets up the third Democratic-controlled county board in the valley to openly challenge the Democratic governor’s reopen strategy.
“The Governor has established a complicated set of metrics to determine when a county or region can move to ‘yellow,'” the statement from the commissioners said.
“One metric that has been the focus of many is ‘50 new cases per 100,000 people over a 14-day period’. Honestly, we don’t think this is a very good metric. At nearly 525,000 people, Chester County has a population density that makes achieving this number very difficult. We have been fighting hard to use metrics that make better sense, given our demographics.”
The ’50 new cases’ marker was also a point of contention for Bucks County commissioners and the county’s health director. Nearly three weeks ago, the commissioners sent a letter to Wolf saying that the benchmark was so difficult to reach that it could “permanently keep Bucks County in the ‘red zone.'”
This Friday, 12 additional counties in the state are slated to move into the yellow phase, bringing the total to 49. Most of the counties that are still in red are in the southeast part of the state.
A spokeswoman for Wolf promised continued contact with the county.
“We have regular communication with all state and local government representatives regarding the reopening plan,” said Lyndsay Kensinger.
Delaware Valley Journal asked how the governor could look away from three counties controlled by members of his own political party.
“Political affiliations have no influence on reopening,” Kensinger said. “As outlined in the plan, the approach is data driven and reliant upon quantifiable criteria to drive a targeted, evidence-based approach to reopenings in Pennsylvania.”
“We will continue to work with local officials in Chester County as we continue to work through the phased reopening process,” she said.
The open letter from Chester County also made an appeal to residents.
“Please support us as we continue to appeal to the Governor about our thought-out, data-driven reasons for naming June 4th as the date to relax restrictions in Chester County. Because the other reality is, we truly do not have the power to decide when to move to “yellow”, the Governor does. And if we go against the Governor, it could cripple many of Chester County’s businesses through state licensing restrictions. That factor weighs heavily upon us too.”
Even after Bucks County sent their first letter to Wolf, they later followed up by telling the administration they needed him to provide some kind of marker date that might allow the county to begin to organize in preparations for reopening.
Bucks County commissioners then had a meeting with members of the administration including Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine on May 9, but only came away with promises of more communication. No date, tentative or otherwise, was held out as an offer.
The calls for a quicker move to yellow also came at a time when other counties and some municipalities threatened to begin operating on their own. Wolf responded by threatening to withhold funding or other punitive measures.
Read the full letter from Chester County below.
A statement from the Chester County Board of Commissioners:
Chester County ready for yellow on June 4th. Governor Wolf, let us prove it.
How and when do we relax restrictions in Chester County in light of COVID-19? This is a question that drives us constantly, and that is the foundation for our daily (and often nightly) meetings and conversations. We continue to seek the answer to this question in our talks with regional partners, the Governor’s Office, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and Chester County’s business leaders and employers.
The reality is we are close, but we are not there quite yet. We need to see a bit more of a decline in the number of new positive cases we see each day, and we need to increase access to testing.
The Governor has established a complicated set of metrics to determine when a county or region can move to “yellow”. One metric that has been the focus of many is ‘50 new cases per 100,000 people over a 14-day period’. Honestly, we don’t think this is a very good metric. At nearly 525,000 people, Chester County has a population density that makes achieving this number very difficult. We have been fighting hard to use metrics that make better sense, given our demographics.
There are other metrics that the Governor is considering. Things like the ability to do contact tracing — which our Health Department did from the moment we confirmed our first positive coronavirus case, and which can be ramped up should it be needed. And things like access to testing — which we are rapidly building, including our action as the only county in PA to undertake antibody testing.
Many people in Chester County say we should re-open now because the overwhelming majority of our deaths are related to long-term care facilities. While this is true, the overall number of daily new positive cases are not related to long-term care facilities. The overall number of daily new positive cases are related to community transmission.
Back to the question that drives us: How and when do we relax restrictions in Chester County?
We are addressing the “how”, through the work of our COVID-19 Business Task Force, and will have practical information about this for all of our businesses, organizations and residents in the coming days. Including a comprehensive, easy to navigate website that will be a trusted resource, with input from county business leaders on how we move forward economically. And for those who may be concerned, how we move forward safely.
But the “when”?
Chester County’s data indicates that we should be able to safely move to the yellow phase on June 4th, and that is what we are strongly urging the Governor to agree to. Moving to yellow is really a cautious step forward. This date gives us sufficient time to expand access to testing and the time needed to see a steadier pace of daily new cases. This date also gives us time to make ready our businesses and organizations so that our residents — their customers — can be confident that they will be safe. Most importantly, we have the support of our own Chester County Health Department in aiming for June 4th.
COVID-19 hasn’t just impacted our physical health. The domino effect affect has touched our financial health and our emotional health and we have called upon all county resources to help as much as we can for residents and businesses alike. Resources like food distribution, mental health services, the Main Street Preservation Grant program. Even our Adopt a healthcare facility program, with churches and community groups providing moral support and acts of kindness for long-term care facility staff and residents.
We also recognize that you have been doing your part. You have followed the guidelines and have stayed home. You have supported small businesses and local restaurants that continue to operate under restrictions. You have supported essential workers in their tireless fight against this invisible enemy. And for all of this, we thank you.
Now we ask you to do just a bit more. Please stick with us and give us the time to June 4th. Please support us as we continue to appeal to the Governor about our thought-out, data-driven reasons for naming June 4th as the date to relax restrictions in Chester County. Because the other reality is, we truly do not have the power to decide when to move to “yellow”, the Governor does. And if we go against the Governor, it could cripple many of Chester County’s businesses through state licensing restrictions. That factor weighs heavily upon us too.
Relaxed restrictions — yellow phase — on June 4th. We know Chester County will be ready by then. Governor Wolf, let us prove it.
Chester County Commissioners Marian Moskowitz