READING, Pa. - Nearly 20 questions from Berks County residents poured into the commissioners' Microsoft Teams meeting Thursday morning. As you might expect, nearly all of the questions concerned the county's response to COVID-19 and its plans for the June 5 move into the yellow phase of the state's mitigation plan.
Before answering the questions, Commissioner Christian Leinbach apologized for an inadvertent and unintended closure of the Teams site for public comments during the previous week's meeting just 10 minutes after the meeting opened. Sure enough, a complaint about the closure was one of the first questions asked.
Leinbach reported that, among county-owned facilities, no cases of the coronavirus had been reported at the Berks Detention Center; one inmate and two staff members have been infected at the Berks County Jail; and 63 residents and 30 staff have tested positive for the virus at Berks Heim. To date, 33 deaths and 16 recoveries have been confirmed at Berks Heim.
Starting Thursday, Leinbach said, the Pennsylvania National Guard will begin testing staff at Berks Heim. Residents also can volunteer for testing.
Several questioners wanted to know about plans for contact tracing. Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt answered that question, explaining that the county, using funds from the federal CARES Act, will spend more than $1 million with Co-County Wellness to conduct testing. Unlike larger counties like Lancaster, Berks has not yet received the CARES money, but the county expects it shortly and will begin testing immediately, according to Barnhardt.
Leinbach noted that Co-County Wellness has been in business since 1985 and performed the AIDS tracing at that time. He also said there will be no electronic tracing and that it will be 100% voluntary.
Barnhardt also responded to questions about the reduced inmate population at the jail and whether the reduced number could be used to plan for the jail's future needs. He said the current population of about 573 inmates is unlikely to go lower because the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a large backup in trials and the jail's population will grow. Barnhardt also noted that District Attorney John Adams recently told him that 27 murder trials are pending.
Commissioner Michael Rivera responded to complaints about legally open businesses that are not following safe social-distancing practices. He said the commissioners have no direct law enforcement authority and that complaints should be directed to the district attorney's office.
Asked about how the county plans to adapt to moving into the yellow phase, Leinbach said the commissioners' meetings will continue to be virtual for the time being and that the county will notify the media in advance of a change. Telemeetings are still encouraged for county employees.
The primary election on June 2 was also discussed. Barnhardt said preparations have been made for deep sanitation to be performed before the polls open and after they close. He said people who plan to vote by mail but do not get their ballots to the post office in time can use a drop box in the lobby of the Berks County Services Center. To date, he said, 47,000 mail-in ballots have been requested and more than 26,000 returned.
In other matters, Rivera said Pennsylvania has established a 30-day fund, which grants forgivable loans of up to $3,000 and that the state was seeking donations to help supplement the fund. He also said the state website has detailed information for businesses about moving into the yellow phase of reopening.
Also, the commissioners reappointed the following members to the Berks County Workforce Development Board for three-year terms:
- Lewis McCoy, Jr., director of human resources, SSM Group Inc.
- Russell Showers, senior vice president and chief human resources officer, Tower Health
- Karen Troxell, director of corporate HR and organizational effectiveness, Penske
- Peggy Kershner, co-executive director, Berks Connections/Pre-Trial Services
- Mark Pinkasavage, training director, IBEW Local 743
- James Nichols, regional director, Pennsylvania Bureau of Workforce Partnership & Operations