American flag

Montgomery County is in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, suffering more than 500 deaths so far, but the big topic at Thursday's commissioners meeting was the American flag.

Chairwoman Valerie Arkoosh said Wednesday the county would delay the distribution of free flags to be placed on veterans' graves. She said it would not be safe for groups to gather and places the flags for Memorial Day because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the flags will be given out before July 4.

Commissioner Joseph Gale said that not giving free flags away in advance of the May 25 holiday is an example of "totalitarian-style, over-reaching, nanny state government."

The county has the flags and should give them to groups that place them at cemeteries, he said.

"I'm embarrassed that they don't have that opportunity," Gale said during the meeting, which was streamed online.

Commissioner Kenneth Lawrence Jr. said the delay on giving away flags was made to protect public health.

"I just want to make it clear that these flags will be distributed," he said, just later than usual.

"This is not about any disrespect whatever for our veterans," Lawrence said, noting that many traditional events, such as graduations, birthday parties and a ceremony to honor fallen police officers have been canceled or delayed.

"We can't let ourselves get divided by issues like this," he said.

Arkoosh said Montgomery County is in its ninth week of the coronavirus emergency, as the first two cases were identified March 7.

"We do believe the county has begun, just begun, to turn the corner," said Arkoosh, a physician. "This is not going to be like flipping a light switch, this will be much more like adjusting a dimmer."

She asked residents to take personal responsibility to avoid spreading the coronoavirus. Everybody should act as if they are contagious, and above all, "wash your hands."

Gale said it's time to get businesses open.

"We have to get our economy up and running," he said, referring to the state-imposed shutdown of many businesses. "This cure is worse than the disease itself."

In other business, Lawrence said 140 polling locations will be open in Montgomery County for the June 2 primary, down from the usual 352. The county lost some polling locations because of the pandemic, along with some workers, who tend to be senior citizens and more susceptible to COVID-19. Across the state, poll workers have been quitting to avoid the chance of infection.

The county will vote May 11 on the final plan for the election. Poll workers will get masks and gloves, hand sanitizer will be available for all, and Lawrence asked voters to bring their own pens to the polls. Residents can apply to vote by mail through May 26, he said.

The commissioners approved unanimously a tax exemption for the Montgomery Park Senior Living Phase 2 development in Norristown, a $13.1 million, 42-unit project. The exemption gives the developer a break on some taxes to encourage construction in a deteriorated area.

The board also approved a resolution to seek a $1 million grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security. Solicitor Josh Stein said the money will provide equipment to protect firefighters from COVID-19. The grant, if received, will require a county match of 10%, or $100,000.

The county's Election Board will meet May 11, and the next commissioners' meeting will be May 21.

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