By Rick Hiduk
(Exclusive to EndlessMtnLifestyles.com readers)
While making it clear that the reopening of businesses and county buildings will be gradual and no “flip of the switch,” the Wyoming County Commissioners agreed to petition Gov. Wolf for a redesignation of the rural county’s placement on the governor’s initial regional map of what parts of the state might begin to reopen first.
“We need to be in a group that we share a lot more synergy with,” said commissioner chair Rick Wilbur on April 28. He said he was encouraged by Department of Health secretary Dr. Rachel Levine’s statement on Monday that the regions are “not written in stone.”
Wilbur read aloud a letter that was then unanimously approved by the board to be sent to the governor’s office this afternoon. The rural nature of Wyoming County with “homes spread out and no urban areas” was stressed in contrast with Lackawanna, Luzerne and Monroe counties, each of which have higher population densities and higher incidents of positive coronavirus cases.
Aside from the letter, Wilbur noted that Wyoming County is more closely aligned in every way with Bradford, Sullivan and Susquehanna counties as part of the Endless Mountains region. Addressing Wyoming County’s caught-in-the-middle status, the letter concludes, “Due to the differences between Wyoming County and the rest of the counties in the Northeast region and the similarities with the rural counties in the Northcentral region, we ask to be reclassified and moved to the Northcentral region.”
Wilbur reported that he had been in contact with state Sen. Lisa Baker and Rep. Karen Boback, both of who condoned the letter and promised to back the commissioners’ proposal to the governor. “Wyoming County has a possibility to get moved if we all keep on it and work together,” Wilbur maintained.
After the letter was approved, commissioner Tom Henry said, “I want to make sure that people understand that we are doing this with caution and the utmost care of our residents. But we’d like to get small businesses open.”
“I think that, if we can do this right, we can get this county opened up,” Wilbur concurred.
Even under code yellow guidelines, which should begin for Northcentral Pennsylvania counties on Friday, May 8, and code green at some point, commissioner Ernie King and county EMA director Gene Dziak noted, restrictions such as safe distancing, hand washing and mask wearing will continue.
In the meantime, the commissioners are looking at several federal and state funding sources that could ease the county’s financial burdens during the health crisis. The county will apply for assistance under the federal C.A.R.E.S. act, though Wilbur is looking for clarification from U.S. Rep. Fred Keller as to how much of nearly $5-million earmarked to Pennsylvania might trickle down to Wyoming County after the more populated counties get the bulk of it.
“Eighty percent is supposed to be divided among the other 60 counties for overtime and hazard pay,” said Wilbur. “We need a plan so that everyone knows where the money is going to make sure that we get our fair share.”
More than $311,000 in additional CDBG funds will be available to the county. Wilbur reported that some if not all of it may be able to be used beyond the low- to medium-income municipalities for which the funds are usually earmarked. “It may open up projects that have never been eligible before,” Wilbur suggested. Henry confirmed that the amount is larger than the county usually receives annually.
Elections Options Discussed
The commissioners have received notice from the governor’s office that some money is going to be sent out to help counties with extra expenses for the upcoming primary election such as advertising, but details are as of yet unavailable.
While county elections director Flo Kellett still encourages mail-in voting, she doesn’t anticipate any problems at this point with regular polling places being unavailable or poll workers not wanting to help on June 2. “I don’t think were’ going to have a need for consolidation,” Kellett related, but she is not opposed to pulling some of the smaller municipalities together. By law, she can reduce the number of polling locations by as much as 60 percent as deemed by the Election Board as necessary or more efficient.
Poll workers have expressed concerns about having to clean machines and pens after each voter has cast their ballots, as well as wondering who will be responsible for marking and maintaining safe distancing between voters. Wilbur wondered aloud if someone might be hired for each poll with the state’s money and assigned specifically with maintaining a sanitary atmosphere. If not, he suggested that the National Guard may make people available to help.
“The election judges have their own responsibilities, and I don’t think that cleaning is a responsibility that we should put on them,” he stated, “And those dropping off machines don’t have the extra time to do that.”
Gina Suydam, president of the Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce offered to supply floor stickers for six-feet safe distancing. Kellett recommended that some of the extra funding be used for the purchase of one-time-us pens.
The general consensus of those participating in the meeting are that the polls will be relatively quiet if most people vote by mail. Kellett noted that more than 2,000 mail-in ballots have been sent out to voters at their request. Any decisions on poll consolidations were put on hold until closer to the election due to the uncertainty of how the virus will play itself out between now and then.
Courthouse Use Still Restricted
The county courthouse is still closed to public. The new thermometers have arrived, and employees’ temperatures are checked every time they enter the building. Anyone measuring 100.7 degrees or more will be asked to leave. Wilbur went above CDC guidelines by asking Henry and King to approve a cautionary measure that anyone with a temperature of 99 to 100.6 must wear a mask at all times or be asked to leave. Otherwise, masks are being worn in all common spaces. Employees working alone in an office have the discretion of removing their masks.
Electronic Recycling Date Moved
The county’s twice per year recycling of electronic equipment that had been planned for May 9 has been moved to Saturday, July 11.
Many county residents are eager to get their regular recyclables to their local township centers or the primary center in Tunkhannock Township. The question was raised by this reporter as to when that might be resumed.
“We’ve talked about it, but we haven’t made any changes,” Wilbur responded. Later, he told EndlessMtnLifestyles.com that, while he is unsure if recycling centers are permitted to reopen under a “yellow light,” the consensus of the commissioners is that it is still not safe for workers.
“According to the experts, the coronavirus can last three to four days on impervious surfaces like glass and metal,” he explained. “Even if our guys wear gloves, if they need to adjust their mask, scratch their forehead or any of the involuntary things we do, they are in danger of catching it of there is anything contaminated in the recyclables. That is why it is closed.”
Judge’s Schedule Modified
Commissioner Henry complimented Judge Russell Shurtleff for conducting a meeting of drug treatment court participants outside the courthouse with safe distancing, calling it an “uplifting moment” in contrast the surreal vibe inside the building.
Shurtleff, in turn, noted that the courts remain open for guilty pleas, custody matters, and other services. He is waiting for more guidance from the Pennsylvania court system as to how to slowly return the courts to normal. All jury trials are canceled for May, as it would be “too premature to move forward,” he remarked.
In the meantime, Zoom conferencing is being used on an almost daily basis for arraignments and preliminary hearings.
Satellite Office Leases Extended
Commissioner King handled negotiations for the renewal of two leases for county offices on Hollowcrest Road in Tunkhannock Township where District Magistrate David Plummer and the Wyoming County Conservation District conduct business. Former ten-year lease were changed to five- and three-year leases.
The county is still looking at opportunities for consolidation of county offices, Wilbur explained, so the commissioners wanted to avoid longer lease terms. The cost per square foot remained at $11, and the building owners will allow the county to use an additional room in one of the basements for free. “They were very cooperative,” King reported.
A work session of the Wyoming County Commissioners scheduled for Thursday, April 30 at 9 am will also be accessible to the public, using the same GoTo technology that was used Tuesday morning. The online sign-in information will be different, but the phone number will remain the same. Both will be available on the home page of the county’s website – www.wycopa.org.