CLEARFIELD – Clearfield County District Attorney Ryan Sayers has joined a number of DAs and county commissioners across Pennsylvania to test the governor’s authority under a disaster emergency.
Sayers announced Saturday that any local business that wanted to reopen will not be prosecuted by his office so long as it follows Centers for Disease Control & Prevention guidelines.
Businesses that are already open pursuant to the directives of Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health must continue to comply with these same restrictions.
Wolf has listed Clearfield County as being in the ‘yellow phase’ of his plan to reopen Pennsylvania. However, no guidance has been provided as to when a county can expect to be moved to the ‘green phase’ and be fully reopened.
Additionally, the governor has yet to inform ‘non-essential businesses’ why they still have that status and why they cannot be open in the “yellow phase” of his plan.
“Many business owners and community members have contacted me and expressed concern, fear and anger in regards to their inability to reopen or go to a business of their choosing,” said Sayers.
According to the Department of Health Web site, Clearfield County has had 25 positive cases, 639 negative cases and zero deaths since this pandemic started.
“In a county of almost 80,000, that means roughly 0.03 percent have contracted COVID-19 in an almost two-month period,” Sayers said. “The curve has been flattened.
“However, the backbone of the Clearfield County economy, small businesses, are continuing to be shuttered arbitrarily by the governor.”
Sayers continued, “the Constitution of the United States guarantees certain rights and there is no caveat in there for a virus.
“I swore an oath to support, obey and defend the Constitution of the United States and of this Commonwealth. Based on the data and in speaking with local, county and state officials, I cannot in good conscience continue to allow the rights of the people of Clearfield County to be infringed upon.
“People should be free to choose if they want to go somewhere or stay home, and from which store they wish to buy from, instead of being forced to certain locations because of the unchecked decision of two individuals.
“With that said, one concern that I have for some small business owners is their license through a state agency. There is nothing the district attorney can do if a state agency decides to revoke a license for businesses like salons, bars, restaurants, etc., which would obviously shutter the business.
“However, one would hope that the governor would not target these licenses if a business decided to reopen while taking the appropriate safety precautions.”
Sayers said the District Attorney’s Office will not prosecute a business that reopens, so long as the business complies with the guidelines of the CDC for social distancing and cleanliness.
If a business fails to comply with these safety measures, he said then these allegations will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
And the Clearfield County Commissioners are split on the district attorney’s decision.
In an e-mail Monday, Commissioner John A. Sobel said he believes in the “right balance” between protecting citizens and beginning to reopen the economy in a more rapid fashion for three reasons.
“First, if we wreck the economy, then we will see long-term negative effects on the health of Americans that will equal or pass the effects we are now seeing from the coronavirus,” he said.
“Secondly, the ‘army’ that we use to wage war on the coronavirus pandemic is our public health system. If we damage the economy, then we damage the public health system.
“Finally, in our rural communities, many of the services and quality of life services that we enjoy are provided by small business.
“If we lose them, many of those services will never return and our quality of life will be negatively affected forever. We are at the point that they will disappear if we delay any further.”
Sobel said people have learned a lot about how to deal with COVID-19 over the past several weeks, and so he doesn’t believe the citizens and business owners will do away with caution.
“I believe that they will be careful and will take the necessary precautions to protect our citizens and themselves,” he said, adding that “I can’t say the balance will be perfect or that things won’t continue to be difficult for a while.
“However, I believe we can’t just hold in place anymore. Americans have basic commonsense and they will figure it out. We always have …”
Commissioner Chairman Tony Scotto said Sayers’ decision aims to help the county’s economy, and he supports its reopening but notes he does have some concerns. “Many small businesses are suffering.
“But it’s important to remember that while the DA might not prosecute a business, the state still may pull its license to do business.
“It is also important to remind businesses of COVID-19 liability. Business insurers will probably not cover a business if they spread the virus, and were not supposed to be open.”
Commissioner Dave Glass said that he understands the “frustration and economic pain” felt by so many in the area, as he has many friends and family suffering with this, as well.
At the time same, he said that he also understands the danger this virus represents, as he has close relatives affected by it in another state.
“I respect DA Sayers; however, I cannot support his position here,” Glass said. “First of all, I very much support the idea of a phased reopening.
“Second, I think it sets a dangerous precedent to ignore a governor’s executive order, especially during a declared emergency.”
Glass also pointed out that this order was reviewed by two Supreme Courts – Pennsylvania and United States – and was upheld each time.
“The relative lack of cases locally thus far is a blessing; however, there’s no vaccine and no proven treatment,” he said. “We could easily get a ‘spike’ in cases down the line.
“It’s important that we remain vigilant and continue to take the steps required – both by the governor’s office, and by infectious disease experts worldwide – to protect ourselves and each other.”
Glass continued, saying: “We just moved to ‘yellow’ phase. We can definitely see light at the end of the tunnel. Now is not the time to throw caution to the wind.
“Our citizens have sacrificed so much the past two months, let’s not waste all that by risking large-scale gatherings and other prohibited reopenings at this time.”