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DA will not take action against businesses that reopen against state orders

The Lycoming County District Attorney’s office will no longer prosecute or investigate any businesses owners who chose to reopen, according to a news release Wednesday.

An “uptick” in narcotic activity and violent crime requires the office to diverge from enforcing Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening restrictions, said Ryan C. Gardner, district attorney.

“To help ensure the continued safety and welfare of all county residents, the allocation of this office’s resources must be applied to the prosecution of criminals engaging in violent and drug-related activities,” he said.

Although COVID-19 remains a threat and businesses should be mindful of it, the district attorney’s office added that it will not contribute to the financial toll they have taken, nor the struggle in deciding to reopen, he said.

“Business owners in this position are not criminals and it is unfair to hang over their heads the threat of prosecution for violation of the governor’s orders to remain closed despite this county’s recent ‘yellow’

designation,” said Gardner.

Despite the district attorney’s instruction to law enforcement in the county to not enforce or investigate the governor’s restrictions, the state government may still enact other penalties.

“Business owners choosing to open must be mindful of the governor’s ability to impose civil consequences that include the revocation of licenses, the imposition of fines and the ability to scrutinize state mandated insurance policies,” he said.

Those fines and abrogations are outside of the county’s jurisdiction, said Gardner.

“Despite our collective pursuit of returning to a state of normalcy, all residents and business owners should be cognizant of the fact that we all remain vulnerable to this virus and continue to strictly adhere to all CDC and state Department of Health guidelines regarding social distancing, sanitization and utilization of personal protective equipment when required,” he said.

The work that businesses in the county do to aid “the financial well-being of our community is beyond measure,” said Gardner.

“This office will not contribute to the financial hardship committed upon countless small business owners, their families and employees due to these orders,” he said.

Jason Fink, president of the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses that his organization has been in contact with are frustrated with the state’s lack of forward motion in reopening the economy.

“I think you’re going to see some business open up, especially those who don’t operate in the atmosphere where they’re required to have a license or some other state permission.”

For some, the DA’s “heavy hand” and threat of local prosecution is what kept their business closed, he said. With that risk evaporated, more businesses may slowly start to open their doors.

“We’re hearing that there are a number of businesses that question why we are still in the yellow phase and not moving forward into the green phase,” said Fink.

Now, approaching nearly two weeks of being in the yellow phase, the exasperation at the governor’s shut-down is beginning to be too much.

“It is unfortunate that the governor has put our DA in the position to make this decision,” said Fink. “Lycoming County and several other counties that are in the yellow phase have been waiting to learn when we’ll advance to the final green phase of the reopening of our economy and communities.”

A month ago, Gov. Wolf was expected to meet with six other states’ leaders in the northeast to begin the process of reopening, but there have been no statements from Harrisburg outlining the steps.

“The governor here has yet to provide us with the plan on how we move from yellow to green,” he said. “He is forcing local leaders to address it on their own, against the authority he holds in providing the overall direction in leading Pennsylvania out of this crisis.”

Meanwhile, states like Connecticut and New York have detailed plans to open their economies.

Instead of punishment, Wolf should look into using financial resources to protect the elderly in personal care and nursing homes, who have made up more than half of the 4,624 deaths in the state, he said.

“It is understandable why they are choosing to go against the governor given that he has yet to detail a plan unlike several other neighboring states,” said Fink. “Our region has successfully flattened the curve.”

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