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Rep. Jones: State health officials are 'bureaucrats' not 'experts'

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

State Rep. Mike Jones on Wednesday joined a handful of York County restaurant owners to lay out a plan they say would allow dining rooms to safely reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.

Medical experts have warned against it. Gov. Tom Wolf ordered them closed. But Jones, a York Township Republican, said the “experts” the state relies on are bureaucrats who are looking at COVID-19 through a single lens.

"Don't confuse government health officials with experts," Jones said. "They are very two different things. They are largely bureaucrats that may be good at the day-to-day job. But we need to start listening to actual experts."

More:What to expect when York County enters the yellow phase on Friday

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Jones specifically referenced Cyril Wecht, a renowned forensic pathologist who wrote a column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette observing the ramifications of shutdown orders.

In the column published May 14, Wecht wrote that "the time to dispense with panic and hysteria has arrived."

Jones has been at the forefront of calls to reopen the state's economy as York County  prepared to move into the yellow phase of reopening Friday.

Under the yellow designation, Wolf's stay-at-home orders are lifted and most businesses can reopen, but with limitations.

Restaurants, though, are still banned from dine-in service. Take-out and delivery is permitted. 

On Wednesday, Jones stood inside the Paddock on Market in Springettsbury Township, joined by Jon Spanos, the co-owner of the restaurant.

Spanos, who does not intend to defy Wolf's orders, said there has been no cooperation from state government with restaurant owners' attempts to establish safety guidelines for reopening dining rooms.

All he wants, he said, is a joint effort.

Co-owner Jon Spanos addresses media at The Paddock on Market in Springettsbury Township, Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Spanos and his wife Sally (not pictured) were joined by State Rep. Mike Jones and other area restaurant owners in an effort to encourage state officials to allow restaurants to offer dine-in services when operating in conjunction with social distancing and safe business practices as Pennsylvania eases into the yellow phase during the coronavirus pandemic. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Without guidelines by the state, Spanos created his own in compliance with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and government agencies, he said.

That includes staggered seating, installing barriers at the bar and host's area, as well as using sanitizer and disposable menus.

And, like the reporters present at the event, anyone entering the building must have their temperatures taken with a touch-free thermometer.

"We are not cutting corners. We do not cut corners on the way we do business. We do not cut corners on the way we do safety," Spanos said.

Jones, along with other Republicans, have proposed reopening methods that have consistently contradicted the recommendations of the state Department of Health and other entities.

Instead, they've cited the flattening of the coronavirus' infection curve as a go-ahead for reopening, calling for the governor to instead shift his focus to nursing homes.

Jones said he would not call for businesses to reopen in defiance of Wolf's orders.

But he did say he encourages business owners to do what they feel is best to save their business, because the state government has "betrayed them." 

"We are killing and destroying more lives with our response than we are ever going to save," Jones said.

Wolf has warned businesses about disobeying his orders. He has said that counties could lose relief funding and businesses could lose their licenses.

Jones said he would gladly support the defunding of the state Liquor Control Board or any other entity that would "prey" on business' licenses.

Jones also has created a "six-figure legal defense fund" to protect restaurants as they try to innovate and operate under Wolf's limitations, he said. He declined to offer the exact amount of money in the fund but said community leaders and business people throughout the area have contributed.

Other areas of the state, such as Lancaster, have leaders who have openly pledged to defy Wolf's shutdown orders. 

York County hasn't gone that far, though District Attorney Dave Sunday has said he won't prosecute noncompliance.

The Manchester Township Board of Commissioners last week approved a resolution in support of all businesses reopening, citing a low number of cases in the county and the township itself.

State Rep. Mike Jones (R-York Township) is joined by restaurant owners discuss safe business practices to be put into place for dine-in service during a demonstration at The Paddock on Market in Springettsbury Township, Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Rep. Jones is one of the leaders of the ReopenYorkPA movement. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Neither the township nor the Northern York County Regional Police Department will enforce noncompliance. But the township does expect businesses to follow health guidelines.

Municipalities and businesses wishing to reopen has been a common theme, championed by local Republicans in a variety of in-person events over the past few weeks.

Based on the numbers, businesses do have a reason to worry.

The state has received 1.9 million applications for unemployment benefits since mid-March.

The York County Economic Alliance, in conjunction with a Pittsburgh-based economist, has projected that up to 30% of small businesses in the county won't be able to reopen.

Legislatively, however, the GOP has had no luck pushing bills that would reopen sectors of the state economy through the Legislature it controls.

Wolf, a Democrat, each time has vetoed legislation without hesitation.

As of Thursday at noon, York County had 883 coronavirus cases and 21 deaths linked to the virus.

Statewide, there were 65,292 cases and 4,869 deaths.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.