After what seemed like countless weeks of waiting, Bucks County finally entered the green phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan on Friday, June 26. Limited indoor dining has resumed, gyms have reopened and overgrown quarantine hair can finally get cut and colored.
Still, Commissioners Diane Ellis-Marseglia, Bob Harvie and Gene DiGirolamo, and Health Director Dr. David Damsker, are reminding residents that green doesn’t mean “go.”
“We’re just trying to make sure that people understand that green isn’t normal. Green isn’t back to life pre-COVID,” said Harvie during a recent virtual news conference. “The virus is still present. There are still people who, because of their age or immune system, are more at-risk than others are. And so I think we need to be mindful of that.”
According to Damsker, the number of local COVID-19 cases is down to a “trickle,” averaging about 10 per day. Of the county’s total 5,400 cases since March, more than 70 percent have recovered. Over 500 deaths have been attributed to the virus, including 405 long-term care residents. Damsker added that his department has gotten in touch with 97 percent of all infected individuals in Bucks County, and continues to implement extensive contact tracing.
“We’ve sort of hit a plateau where we don’t believe we’ll go much lower than we have,” he said. “There is still virus in the community, and our main focus is to keep it from rising above those numbers and keeping our pure community spread as low as possible.”
While a number of states, including Florida, Texas and Arizona, are seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases, Damsker said residents can take simple steps to prevent a second wave in the community.
“If you go into a restaurant, a store, keep your mask on. Keep social distancing. Keep sanitizing. It doesn’t matter where you are. The coronavirus is out there,” he warned, adding that one-third of recent Bucks cases were infected elsewhere. “I think what’s really important is we continue to do the things we’ve been doing throughout yellow. All businesses are open now. Even if they’re under restrictions, we can live our lives. But just keep in the back of your mind the sanitizing, masking. All those things haven’t gone away, as much as we want them to.”
Restaurants and bars licensed by the county are being regularly checked by health inspectors to make sure they’re following CDC guidelines. After this information was shared on the county’s Facebook page, many commenters said they felt threatened about being “watched.” However, Damsker explained the regular deployment of health inspectors is nothing new, and has been taking place since before COVID-19.
“We know the bars and restaurants have been through a lot. They’ve been closed for a long time. We want them to thrive, we want them to succeed, but they need to follow the rules just like the gyms and hair salons do,” he said. “We’re also asking the public, when they go to bars, please follow the guidelines that the bar or restaurant is asking you to follow. It makes it much easier for them if people aren’t arguing or fighting. Please don’t order when you’re standing up. Just simple things like that. It’ll make it a lot easier on our businesses if the citizens of Bucks County would help.”
When asked if the county could possibly revert back to the yellow or red phase if cases rise again, Damsker said it’s unlikely. Instead, he believes Wolf would close only locations that are causing a spread, whether that be a specific gym or eatery.
Regarding locals returning home after visiting high-risk states, Damsker encouraged them to self-monitor. They should take their temperature during the first week back, avoid visiting elderly parents and grandparents, stay away from public gatherings for a few days and remain home from work if they’re feeling ill.
For employees who rely on tips as part of their income, the Commissioners pleaded with them to not report to work if they are sick, and asked employers to be understanding.
“Not all of your employees are going to be able to come in if they are ill, and you don’t want them to end up making your other employees or your guests ill, and then Dr. Damsker says you’ve got to close,” said Marseglia. “It’s really important to be patient with your employees. People want to go to work, so if they’re staying home and they’re telling you they’re ill, ask them to get a doctor’s note so you can feel good.”
Present during the conference was Housing and Community Development Director Jeffrey Fields, who discussed Wolf’s moratorium on housing evictions, which expires on July 10, and the eviction process. Generally, a landlord will give a 10-day notice before any eviction is filed. However, if a “notice to quit” is waived on the lease, the landlord could file the eviction without any warning. Once an eviction is filed, tenants typically have about three weeks to vacate the unit.
With the expiration of the moratorium only days away, Fields shared steps tenants can take if they’re in danger of eviction.
“Talk with your landlord if you know you’re not going to be able to pay your rent, see what payment options, what flexibility they might have,” he said.
If there are no options, tenants should call The Housing Link at 800-810-4434, and staff will refer them to a local nonprofit that specializes in eviction prevention. Callers should have documentation, including a copy of the lease, basic income information and Social Security card, at the ready. For legal advice, they can call Legal Aid of Southeastern PA at 877-429-5994.
The Commissioners shared a few final words.
“I think we’re in a good position to move to green very safely and very securely. The message I’m going to leave everyone with is continue to do the things that you’re doing,” said DiGirolamo. “I really believe that wearing masks is so important. You’re not only affording yourself some protection, but you’re protecting the people around you, whether it be your family, your friends or your coworkers.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com