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Forum addresses region’s move to ‘yellow’ phase of reopening plan

While the May 15 move of most Southwestern Pennsylvania counties to the “yellow” phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan has occurred, the overall scenario has a way to go before even somewhat resembling life before COVID-19.

Even though more businesses are allowed to return to operation, measures to ensure the safety of employees and customers, such as wearing personal protective equipment and following social-distancing protocols, remain in place.

An audio “telephone town hall” forum hosted last week by state Sen. Pam Iovino, D-Mt. Lebanon – with guests Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County executive, and Matt Smith, Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce president – addressed aspects of the “yellow” phase, with participants fielding callers’ questions about the subject.

“This progress into ‘yellow’ means that we here in Southwest Pennsylvania, we’ve been doing a really good job limiting the spread of the coronavirus, or flattening the curve,” said Iovino, whose district includes Peters Township.

“The mitigation restrictions that you have complied with, the sacrifices that you have made, it’s paid off,” she continued. “And if we’re able to maintain this flattening of the curve, and eventually a down trajectory in new cases, I’m very optimistic that we’ll continue to reopen businesses and see our economy return to the thriving economy is once was.”

Fitzgerald gave credit for the improvement in status for most of the region, including Allegheny, Washington and Greene counties – Beaver County remains in the “red” phase – to following advice provided by medical experts.

“We’ve got to make sure that we continue to cooperate and continue to listen to our experts, because as we open up office, retail, child care, gatherings with 25 people or less, we still need to have the physical distancing,” he said. “We still need to be wearing our masks. We still need to be washing our hands, and all the mitigating factors we’ve had.”

In the “yellow” phase, in-person gatherings are to be limited to 25 individuals or fewer. Places of business must limit the number of patrons to 50% of what their capacities were prior to COVID-19.

For his part, Smith credited regional success to collaboration that have emerged between the private and public sectors, and among various entities on multiple levels.

“We want to continue expanding the reopening in a smart and thoughtful manner, and we really think that’s going to enable us to maintain our line of sight moving through this, as we know this is not going to be a linear process,” he said. “There are going to be ups and downs.”

Among the questions fielded by the panel was whether businesses would continue to feature special hours for older adults and those with compromised health conditions.

Iovino explained the requirement.

“At a minimum, they must set aside one hour per week. It’s minimal, and people are encouraged to do more than that,” she said, noting that many of the businesses she has encountered make such provisions on a daily basis.

Another question pertained to business’ liability: “Will they be punished if someone contracts COVID-19 at their establishment?”

The issue has been a point of discussion among members of the organization Smith heads.

“We think it can be done in a very narrow way, tied directly to this time period and built in with a sunset provision, where this protection would expire when the emergency ends,” he said. “And so we look at it as a safe harbor, if you will, for those businesses and other entities – nonprofits, governmental agencies – that are operating on good faith, to operate safely in following the applicable state and federal guidance.”

As for those who don’t, “In no way are we or anyone who’s advocating for this pushing for any protection or shield for ‘bad actors,’” he said.

Many business owners are wondering if their insurance policies will cover losses related to COVID-19.

In response, Iovino has introduced legislation that “allows an avenue for business owners to file a claim with regard to property damage,” she said, with language in the bill defining such damage as “namely, the presence of the COVID-19 coronavirus.”

Smith said his organization is working on the issue at the federal level, citing particular concern for businesses with density issues, such as restaurants, theaters and other entertainment venues.

“Even when the economy is up and fully operational, if you will, in this ‘new normal,’ they’re likely to have restrictions because of the social-distancing requirements,” he said. “And so there’s likely going to be a need, we think, for a federal bridge, financing or some sort of support for those businesses that, simply by virtue of social distancing requirements, are not going to be able to operate at full capacity.”

For an audio recording of the forum, visit www.senatoriovino.com/covid19/.

Parade of educators greets Washington Elementary students in Bethel Park

After keeping a close watch on weather forecasts, the folks at Bethel Park’s George Washington Elementary School chose Wednesday for what turned out to be an ideal day for a parade.

Under a cloudless sky and with the thermometer pushing well into the 60s, Washington faculty and staff members drove through the neighborhoods the school serves, waving to children who were excited to see the procession from safe distances because of COVID-19.

For Student Appreciation Week, May 11-15, the school scheduled two special events. Along with the parade was a cookie pickup at Eat’n Park on Fort Couch Road, with each youngster who visited receiving a free treat.

The parade ended up taking place the day before it originally was scheduled because of calls for the Pittsburgh region’s seemingly omnipresent spring rain.

“The last few months have been difficult and unprecedented for most individuals, and the staff at Washington Elementary wants you to know that we continue to work to support both you and your children,” Principal Fred Pearson wrote in a letter to students’ families. “As we move into the final stretch of the school year, our hope is to maintain the strong bond that exists between the staff and our precious student body.”

Vehicles in the parade were decorated with festive adornments and messages of encouragement, and a Bethel Park Volunteer Fire Company truck, always a children’s favorite, brought up the rear of the entourage.

“I hope that our attempt to share goodwill lightens your day and puts a smile on your child’s face,” Pearson wrote. “On behalf of the staff at Washington Elementary we wish you all the best and look forward to seeing each of you again very soon.”

Tennis, anyone?: Closing of courts questioned in Peters Township

As restrictions caused by COVID-19 persist deep into the spring, plenty of people are wondering when public recreational areas will open again.

In a written comment submitted to Peters Township Council, resident John Muza questioned pandemic-related restrictions implemented statewide – “The costs associated with these lockdowns has not been properly considered” – and specifically mentioned the closing of the municipal tennis center.

During council’s meeting Monday, member Gary Stiegel Jr. said he tends to agree with regard to America’s favorite racquet sport.

“I look at that as similar to the way golf is,” he said. “You’re not getting up and personal with anybody. I would think that would be something we could open.”

Even with Washington County moving May 15 out of the “red” and into the “yellow” phase of reopening, as designated by Gov. Tom Wolf, tennis is not designated as a permitted activity.

“Particularly, the courts inside the tennis bubble are considered indoor recreation,” township manager Paul Lauer said, referencing the seasonal court coverings.

“I get it in terms of the outdoor, particularly if you are playing singles. But if we follow state guidelines, I believe that those facilities are not to be opened.”

He cautioned against deviating from state guidelines.

“I don’t know what liability we take upon ourselves, and I don’t know how our insurance carrier would react to that decision. I don’t know how much you’d be waiving your protections under the Tort Claims Act, which very much limits what you can sue a municipality for,” he said.

As of May 1, Wolf permitted the opening of golf courses – along with marinas, guided fishing trips and privately owned campgrounds – all subject to appropriate social distancing and other safety precautions.

“I can see the rationale that in tennis, both players are touching the same ball, whereas opposed to golf, they’re not,” council member Frank Kosir Jr. said.

Whatever the status of various recreational activities, more township businesses are going back into operation.

“Within the governor’s plan to reopen to the ‘yellow’ phase, those that are allowed to have occupants will only be allowed to have 50% of their maximum occupancy,” said Peters Township Fire Department Chief Michael McLaughlin, who serves as the municipal emergency operations manager. “Does that mean it’s safe? Not necessarily. But they’ve been given that guidance to reach out to fire departments in municipalities to get that information.”

Guidelines also call for scheduling one-on-one appointments when possible and, of course, maintaining social distancing.

“That’s the message that we’re trying to convey to those businesses, as well, with success,” McLaughlin said.

Regarding the operation of township business, Lauer announced municipal hauler Waste Management has restarted complete trash collection, including yard waste and one bulk item per week. Starting next week, the township public works department will pick up branches for chipping.

Another popular service in the township is getting back to normal as well.

“The library has devised a method to do curbside checkout of books and return of books,” Lauer said. “We’re waiting for direction from the state library as to whether or not that’s going to be permitted, because library operations are prohibited under ‘yellow.’”

The Peters Township Municipal Building remains closed.

“That doesn’t mean we haven’t been meeting with people. We do schedule meetings, and a lot of those meetings occur, actually, in this space,” Lauer said, referring to council chambers. “We’re continuing to get the job done in terms of the planning department and the public works department, police and fire. We’re going to continue to the extent that people can work from home, as is suggested under ‘yellow.’”

As for township activities such as summer camp, he did not express optimism.

“I honestly do not believe that the programs are going to occur, but I don’t want to cancel those yet,” he said.

Bethel Park extends penalty-free deadline for real estate tax payments

Bethel Park property owners have until the end of the year to pay their real estate taxes without incurring a late fee.

During a meeting conducted virtually Monday and made available online the following day, Bethel Park Council voted unanimously to extend the period without penalty past its usual Oct. 31 deadline.

The action comes in accordance with the state’s Act 15 of 2020, which took effect April 20 and allows extended property tax discount periods and delays the imposition of penalties for the late payment of property taxes.

“By adopting this resolution, we will provide that for real estate taxes for 2020 only, we will not collect any interest or penalties on payments provided they’re made by the end of the year,” council member Jim McLean said. “This is an opportunity to give folks some relief if they find that they can’t make their tax payments until the end of the year.”

The resolution is among the measures taken locally in response to difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including the closing of Bethel Park Public Library. It will remain so despite Allegheny County moving into Gov. Tom Wolf’s “yellow” phase of reopening as of May 15.

“For libraries in Allegheny County, in-person services are not permitted until the county is moved into the ‘green’ phase,” said Christine McIntosh, Bethel Park library director, as part of the council meeting.

“During this ‘yellow’ phase, the library will be acquiring appropriate personal protective equipment,” she said. “We’re having Plexiglas shields installed at all service points, as well as acquiring masks and gloves for staff. In addition, staff will be reconfiguring some furniture and moving some computers around to comply with social-distancing recommendations.”

She advised patrons to keep borrowed materials for now.

“We’re not yet equipped to accommodate returned items,” she said. “Late fees are not charged when the library is closed,” she said.

During the closure, the library’s Facebook page is conducting virtual programs, which “will transition to in-person programs and events when permitted and appropriate,” McIntosh said.

Also during the council meeting, Bethel Park Mayor Jack Allen issued a proclamation naming May 11-17 as COVID-19 Helper Recognition Week.

“The proclamation will recognize residents, businesses, educational institutions, religious and other establishments in the community that have been complying to guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Health even as the compliance has presented obstacles and challenges for their financial, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health,” he said.

Allen’s action also recognizes Bethel Park individuals and organizations “showing exemplary courage, persistence and fortitude in providing support and assistance to others during the ‘stay at home’ period risking their own health and well-being as well as that of their immediate families.”

Consultant helps ensure safety measures as Mt. Lebanon progresses in reopening

Mt. Lebanon is working with a nationwide service in the municipality’s return to some semblance of normalcy as COVID-19 restrictions start to ease.

“As we start to reopen and transition employees and the public back to the spaces, we’re doing that in as safe a manner as possible,” municipal manager Keith McGill said Tuesday during a Mt. Lebanon Commission discussion session held virtually and made available on video the following day.

The municipality has retained the services of Beaver-based MAC Safety Consultants Inc., which specializes in workplace safety across multiple industries. Owner Chris Miranda has visited Mt. Lebanon to start assessing the situation.

“He’s looking at the opportunities for social-distancing practices. He’s evaluating and providing cleaning guidelines and protocols,” McGill said. “He’s assessing our work spaces, themselves, and then helping as develop a sort of preparedness plan to have in place.”

The discussion session took place prior to Allegheny County’s May 15 move to the “yellow” phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan, and a substantial portion of the meeting addressed transition plans in Mt. Lebanon.

“There’s still additional guidance that’s coming from a number of different agencies statewide, and we’ll be staying on top of that,” assistant municipal manager Ian McMeans said.

In the meantime, officials are developing plans to safely accommodate employees and members of the public at the municipal building, public safety center and other venues, including Mt. Lebanon Public Library.

Under review moving forward are work areas and gathering areas, including assessing needs for physical barriers and the means to provide safe distancing. Other considerations include cleaning and disinfecting practices, and monitoring the demand for protective personal equipment in various municipal departments.

“Additional signage is going to be very important,” McMeans said, “both for directing our employees as far as what the new norms and procedures will be, and for directing members of the public.”

Also regarding people who work for the municipality, officials are looking into various options to help ensure safety.

“We already have a number of employees who have been able to work from home or work remotely,” McMeans reported. “But some jobs just aren’t conducive to that, obviously. So maybe we have to explore certain things like flexible hours schedule, having employees work in shifts, things like that.”

As far as the library, officials are awaiting guidance from the state Office of Commonwealth Libraries and Allegheny County Library Association. McMeans said the municipality has received some correspondence from the latter.

“They’re probably not going to be able to get their system of book distribution back up and running until sometime in mid-June at the absolute earliest,” he said. “We have our collection at the Mt. Lebanon library, but also you have access through that to other collections, and there’s a lot of book sharing.”

He also spoke about the next step in the reopening process, whenever that occurs.

“As we move forward into the ‘green’ phase, hopefully we’re able to do some openings of the rest of our municipal facilities, whether that’s accepting walk-ins at our municipal building or opening up meeting rooms in the building,” McMeans said. “We’re going to have to continually evaluate and assess those areas as far as the cleaning practices and what social distancing may be necessary.”