Cambria County Commissioners (from left) Tom Chernisky, B.J. Smith and Scott Hunt

Cambria County Commissioners (from left) Tom Chernisky, B.J. Smith and Scott Hunt

EBENSBURG – Cambria County’s commissioners are asking Pennsylvania’s top officials to allow the county to “stand alone” as decisions are made about when to lift coronavirus-related restrictions across the state, they said Monday.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan for reopening businesses divided the state into several regions that are to be considered as a whole when deciding when it’s safe to reopen.

Cambria County is included in the southwest region, which also includes harder-hit counties such as Allegheny, Westmoreland and Beaver.

That means that, even though Cambria County’s caseload is below Wolf’s administration’s threshold, reopening here could be delayed because of the higher caseloads in those other counties, according to the commissioners.

Commissioners Tom Chernisky and B.J. Smith said in a press release Monday that they have advocated with officials in Wolf’s administration “for Cambria County to stand independently on its own data and outcomes” instead. They said the state officials “are reviewing the request and taking it under consideration.”

Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine suggested during Monday’s update on COVID-19 in Pennsylvania that the borders of the regions in the reopening plan might be open to alteration. In response to a question about several counties where officials have asked to be moved to different regions for reopening purposes, she said that the state was open to negotiation.

“We’d be glad to take any request and discuss all of those different options,” she said. “We’re not going to be specifically held to the regions on a map. We’re going to be making some informed choices about regions and the counties.”

Asked specifically about the Cambria County commissioners’ request that the county be considered separately from the southwest region, Levine said the state would “be pleased to consider their request, as we’re considering all of those requests.”

As of Monday, Cambria County had 21 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one death, while Somerset County, also part of the southwest region, had 25 cases and no deaths. Neither county had any new cases reported on Sunday or Monday. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the southwest region, Allegheny County had 1,224 cases and 79 deaths, Beaver County had 387 cases and 46 deaths and Westmoreland County had 377 cases and 19 deaths.

“The stay-at-home order was phased in on a county-by-county basis,” Smith said. “We are advocating for the same procedure for reopening. It’s important to protect our most vulnerable and senior citizens while also getting people back to work.”

“This isn’t about politics or party. We all want to open more businesses. However, we want to do it as safely as possible,” added Chernisky, who also said that the stand-alone approach was “developed in close consultation with” Art Martynuska, coordinator of the Cambria County Emergency Management Agency, and Bill Caldwell, CEO of Conemaugh Health System.

Meanwhile, the county’s third commissioner, Scott Hunt, posted on Facebook a copy of a letter that he sent to Wolf on Friday in which he asked the governor to “modify (his) reopening phase to exclude Cambria County from the southwest region.” Hunt wrote that he’d also expressed his concerns to Ali Doyle, deputy director for the southwest region for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

“We can all agree that the health and safety of all residents is extremely important,” Hunt wrote. “The health of our economy is also very important.

“However, the longer we wait to reopen, the greater the chance that some businesses, especially small businesses, will not be able to survive this crisis.

“If our phased reopening date is delayed because of being lumped into the southwest region, the impact could be even more detrimental to the economy of Cambria County, as well as the state.”

Also on Monday, state Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Richland Township, whose district includes Cambria, Bedford and Clearfield counties, sent a letter to Wolf arguing that the state should be reopened on a county-by-county basis. His rationale was similar to that cited by the Cambria County commissioners.

None of the three counties he represents “belong with the major urban areas to which they have been unfairly linked” by the region-based reopening plan, Langerholc argued.

“Cambria County has no business being joined to Allegheny County; Bedford has no similarity in cases with York; and Clearfield is not representative of Erie.”

Wolf’s office said Saturday that its target goal for reopening a region has been set at fewer than 50 new confirmed cases for every 100,000 people reported to the Department of Health in the previous 14 days.

For example, a region with a population of 800,000 would need to have fewer than 400 new confirmed cases reported over a 14-day period to meet the target.

Cambria County, with 21 confirmed cases and a estimated population of 130,192 as of last summer, would meet that target.

However, the governor’s office noted that the caseload target is not the only metric to be met before a region can reopen. Also required are enough testing for people with COVID-19 symptoms and target populations such as health care personnel, first responders and high-risk demographics; robust case investigation and contact tracing infrastructure to aid early identification of cluster outbreaks; and identification of high-risk settings such as prisons and nursing homes and assurance that those facilities have adequate safeguards in place.

“We won’t use one single tool to determine how and when we reopen Pennsylvania and, ultimately, COVID-19 will set the timeline,” Wolf posted on Facebook Monday.

And Levine indicated Monday that the caseload target is not a set-in-stone measure of when regions can reopen. Those decisions will be somewhat subjective, she said.

“I really don’t want to concentrate on that metric,” she said. “It is something that we put down so that we would have some quantitative data to look at, but this will be a qualitative decision, with some subjectivity as well, about how we’re going to have counties go from red to yellow.”

For now, the Cambria County commissioners say they continue to urge county residents to continue taking day-to-day precautions such as frequent hand washing, social distancing and wearing masks in public.

“Cambria County has a legacy of overcoming natural disasters and economic hard times by coming together and working hard,” Chernisky said. “You can see this Cambria County spirit in how people are ordering takeout, checking in on neighbors and keeping at home. I have no doubt we will come out of this time safer and stronger.”

More information about Wolf’s plan for “relief, reopening and recovery” can be found online at www.governor.pa.gov/plan.

Mark Pesto is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkPesto.

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