By Rick Hiduk
(Exclusive to EndlessMtnLifestyles.com readers)
The Wyoming County Commissioners were ready yesterday morning to join a growing number of elected officials across the state with the issuance of a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf expressing their intent to start allowing the opening of businesses in the county on Friday. Commissioner chair Rick Wilbur said the board spent much of the weekend on the phone with state representatives and local law enforcement officials working on a plan for compliance with Code Yellow re-opening status.
Then just before noon on Monday, the governor delivered a crushing blow to everybody who was vowing to defy his orders. Any counties or municipalities that opt to sidestep his plans will face penalties in the way of license revocation, insurance cancellations, and loss of state funding earmarked to their communities.
“We were all in favor of it,” Wilbur said of his fellow commissioners and their intent to join a rebellion that had begun the previous Friday by legislators in southern counties to flout the governor’s authority. After hearing Wolf speak on Monday and consulting with their own lawyers and insurance carrier, they were disappointed to learn that the governor’s edict is indeed a legal order.
“The governor made it a little bit tougher to move forward at this moment,” commissioner Tom Henry conceded. “The lives of everyone in the county are effected.”
“I know that we wanted to go in a different direction,” commissioner Ernie King concurred, “but we must follow the wishes of the state.”
Wilbur cited some specific funds from the state that have already been figured into the county’s operating expenses, such as $26,000 to help offset additional costs of the June 2 primary election and $311,000 in CDBG money that the commissioners want to earmark for struggling businesses.
“If we make the move to open the county against his wishes, that money is in jeopardy and could disappear,” Wilbur related.
“It’s not just hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Henry said of the full potential financial impact, “It could be millions”
According to Wilbur, since Wolf pushed his plans through the state’s Supreme Court, his orders are considered law. Since most professions require some sort of state certification or licensing, as well as insurance that is monitored by the state, any business in the Red Zone considered nonessential could be shut down if opened too early.
“The governor has proclaimed that businesses could lose their insurance if they do something illegal, and opening against his wishes is considered an illegal act,” Wilbur stated. “I don’t personally agree with that, but he has the right according to our supreme court to do that.”
Likewise, the commissioners are not in a position to tell business owners to do what they want. “If we give the blessing to businesses to open, if something happens that they are sued for like an accident, we can be sued along with them because we gave them the right to open,” Wilbur explained. “We’re absolutely against this, but our hands are tied. We can’t go above the supreme court and the government.”
The only encouraging news that the commissioners had on the topic is that none of the law enforcement officials in the county with whom they spoke over the weekend plan to prosecute business owners who do choose to open.
In order to spare county residents further harm from actions threatened by the governor, the commissioners tabled any further discussion on the topic until Friday, when more counties might be moved to the governor’s Yellow Zone. In the meantime, the commissioners remain frustrated that the governor’s office never even acknowledged the letter that they sent to him two weeks ago, nor has anyone in Harrisburg been willing to work with Rep. Karen Boback and Sen. Lisa Baker to provide more precise criteria for opening.
“We need a checklist. We need a road map,” said Wilbur. “We have met the requirement of new cases in 14 days. We are very hopeful that that number will be used. We don’t have a clue what the arbitrary things are because they won’t tell us.”
Participating in the meeting remotely, Jeff Swire, co-founder of Patriot’s Cove in Noxen Township, told the commissioners that he has yet to be given the green light to provide fishing and other recreational opportunities for wounded veterans and first responders, even thought most of the activities are conducted outside along a mile of stream.
“There are a lot of veterans who are struggling right now. To me it’s personal, because I know what these men and woman are going through,” Swire said of the added stress shouldered by some veterans due to the COVID-19 crisis. Suicide rates are up, and Swire lost a friend last week who he did not know was in trouble. “We are chomping at the bit to open up the Cove and offer some kind of outlet for them.”
Commissioner Henry asked that Swire call the commissioners after the meeting to further discuss the matter to see if something could be done.
Wilbur noted that another gathering of Rally for Wyoming County is planned at the courthouse on Thursday during their advertised work session. While they will be unable to participate in the event, Wilbur expressed his hope that more participants will wear masks and maintain safe distancing than at the previous week’s event if they want to convince anyone that they are ready to reopen within guidelines.
Among other topics discussed, census response rates continue to be low in Nicholson, Meshoppen, Laceyville boroughs and the commissioners encouraged everyone once again to go online and complete the process. Some people who have completed the census already have been receiving “reminder” postcards. Wilbur replied that, if people try to complete the census online after already having done so, they should be prevented from going through the process again. Those who do not complete the census on their own will get a home visit from an enumerator between now and July.
The commissioners have yet to come up with a plan to get recycling up and running again. While the idea of loading recycs into a holding area at the center until any contaminated pieces are considered safe to handle still offers the most promise, Wilbur said of the department, “They aren’t ready yet to take everything because they will get buried. We’re working on a plan.”
The county needs to hire new case management and bail supervision specialist to coordinate programs associated with a $600,000 CBGB grant secured by the county last year for drug prevention and treatment programs. The job will be posted first internally. If a qualified person cannot be found within, the job description will be posted publicly.