Cambria County Board of Commissioners meeting

Social distancing at the Thursday, March 19, 2020, meeting of the Cambria County Board of Commissioners was enforced by yellow barricade tape. Health officials have urged social distancing as a way to slow the spread of coronavirus.

EBENSBURG – Cambria County’s director of elections on Thursday morning encouraged voters to apply for mail-in ballots for the upcoming Pennsylvania primary elections as a way to help slow the spread of coronavirus.

“I suggest as many people go this route as can go this route,” Shirley Crowl, head of the county Election and Voter Registration Office, said during Thursday’s meeting of the Cambria County Board of Commissioners.

Also during Thursday’s meeting, Art Martynuska, coordinator of the Cambria County Emergency Management Agency, provided an update on what his agency is doing to prepare for the arrival of coronavirus in the county.

Crowl said the Pennsylvania Department of State is having “a comprehensive discussion about a range of potential options” for the primary elections, which as of Thursday were still scheduled for April 28. The focus of the discussion “is on the best way to protect the integrity of the election while safeguarding public health,” she added.

Art Martynuska, Cambria County Emergency Management Agency coordinator, discusses the county's preparations for coronavirus.

Some county elections directors have called on the state to move the primary date back because of the pandemic. 

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Thursday that five elections directors from the southeastern part of the state will send a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf and the Department of State asking the contest to be rescheduled for June 23.

“At this point,” Crowl said at around 10:30 a.m., “we don’t know what is going to happen – if the primary is going to be moved or if they’re going to have all-mail. They’re still working on that.”

Crowl noted that her office decided on Thursday to cancel a scheduled mid-April training session for poll workers and that public access to many of the buildings used as polling places is currently restricted because of the pandemic.

Mail-in ballots are distinct from absentee ballots in that absentee voters must provide a reason why they’re choosing absentee voting, while mail-in voters do not have to provide a reason why they’re mailing in their ballots, Crowl said. Wolf signed legislation last fall that created the new mail-in ballot option.

As of Thursday morning, the Cambria County election office had received a total of around 700 applications for both mail-in and absentee ballots.

‘As prepared as we can be’

Also on Thursday, the commissioners voted to officially ratify the state of emergency they’d declared earlier in the week in response to the ongoing pandemic.

Martynuska said during Thursday’s meeting that the Cambria County Emergency Management Agency has provided guidance to most of the county’s emergency service providers and is in “constant contact” with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA).

“We get updates constantly,” he said, “sometimes more than once an hour, so we try to stay on top of the most current information so we can let our folks in the field know and also let the commissioners know. … Equipment requests are being collected right now through PEMA. We do have some protective equipment in our cache at the county that we can help out our emergency services with.”

Some first responders are discussing changing “alarm assignments” in order to keep from potentially exposing entire crews of firefighters or medical personnel to coronavirus.

“Instead of sending an entire engine company or two ambulance crews out to the potential scene of an exposure,” Martynuska said, “they try and limit that while still providing the services they need to do.”

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Cambria County received useful donations from the city of Pittsburgh, which donated equipment including decontamination tents and water heaters, and from Lawrence County, which donated a 34-foot trailer that could be used as a “mobile testing area,” he said.

“We’re (as) prepared right now as we can be,” he said. “If, and when, we do see a positive case in Cambria County, we will adjust our response accordingly.”

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

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