What were they thinking?

Latest in a series of posts on the coronavirus

“Cases at Lehigh over the past week have increased the numbers
of infections in the city.”

Reminiscent of the dreadful racist and sexist fraternity theme parties of yesteryear–

ref: “The rise of cases in such a short period of time is nothing short of obscene”

selections from Sarah M. Wojcik, “Lehigh University cracks down on ‘COVID Party’ during outbreak, could expel students.” Morning Call, February 19, 2021.

Lehigh University’s coronavirus outbreak has bloated Northampton County’s infection rate and led to fears that the campus may have to shut down, but officials say that hasn’t stopped some student groups from throwing parties.

The university cited three Greek fraternities — Alpha Tau Omega, Delta Upsilon and Chi Phi — with student conduct charges, alleging they threw parties or gatherings last week, according to a notice posted on the university’s website.

One of those gatherings, according to the university’s notice, was a Feb. 11 off-campus “COVID Party” hosted by Chi Phi and attended by students who had recently tested positive for the coronavirus.

In a letter to the university’s undergraduate students, Vice President of Student Affairs Ricardo Hall said both on- and off-campus parties were quickly shut down, and the students and organizations are facing suspensions, evictions from university housing and even expulsions.

“The consequences are great because the stakes are high,” Hall wrote in the letter.

Even as these examples of bad behavior come to light, Hall emphasized that “the vast majority of students are doing everything they can to keep themselves and everyone around them safe, in hopes of eventually returning to a more ‘normal’ campus life.”

He pointed out examples of students at the campus who’ve been leaders in helping transform the culture around COVID-19, with the student government working to organize a council that would help bring forward possible solutions to these kinds of student-based issues.

Kristen Wenrich, director of the Bethlehem Health Bureau, said this week that cases at Lehigh over the past week have increased the numbers of infections in the city, and there seemed to be no other factors contributing to the rise.

Hall wrote that it’s understandable that students are frustrated and experiencing general “COVID fatigue,” but breaking the rules will only prolong the problem.

“We’ve seen time and again that when the protocols are followed, we see lower rates of infection,” he wrote. “Beyond the importance to health and safety, doing the right thing when it’s difficult — the actions we take today and tomorrow — also ultimately define our community. Thank you for doing your part and for expecting the same from others.”

———–

selections from Sara k. Satullo, “Lehigh U. frat allegedly hosted ‘COVID party’ during campus outbreak. Expulsions possible.” leheighvalleylive, February 18, 2021.

Lehigh University is cracking down on students and groups throwing parties amid a coronavirus outbreak on its South Bethlehem campus.

There are currently 379 active coronavirus cases amongst Lehigh students and more than 600 in quarantine. The university’s test positivity rate jumped to 8% last week, prompting Lehigh to urge student caution last Friday.

Yet, some students did not heed that message. At least three Greek organizations are facing student conduct charges for parties thrown in the last week, according to the university’s student affairs website.

Lehigh University is cracking down on students and groups throwing parties amid a coronavirus outbreak on its South Bethlehem campus.

There are currently 379 active coronavirus cases amongst Lehigh students and more than 600 in quarantine. The university’s test positivity rate jumped to 8% last week, prompting Lehigh to urge student caution last Friday.

Yet, some students did not heed that message. At least three Greek organizations are facing student conduct charges for parties thrown in the last week, according to the university’s student affairs website.

Lehigh’s outbreak is contributing to Northampton County having the state’s second highest per capita infection rate — 43 new cases per 100,000 people — over the past week. Northampton is averaging 132 new cases a day over the last seven days.

“This rise in cases in such a short period of time is nothing short of obscene”

Latest in a series of posts on the coronavirus

“Our inability to handle COVID-19 is not only an embarrassment, but serves as a serious hazard to students, professors and the entire Bethlehem community.”
Lehigh University Brown and White

The Mayor made no mention of this spike in his comments about the local virus happenings at City Council last night.

Sometimes it seems like Lehigh isn’t located in Bethlehem.

Southsiders especially, be cautious!

———–

selections from the Brown and White Editorial Board, “Too Little, Too Late.” February 14, 2021.

We are seeing, time and time again, Lehigh’s administration deflect responsibility and refuse to take action until it’s too late.

But now, it’s causing concern for public safety.

According to the Lehigh COVID-19 dashboard, since Jan. 1 there have been a total of 430 positive cases of coronavirus among students living on and off campus. During the first week of classes,104 students tested positive, and during the second week, 272 more students joined them.

This rise in cases in such a short period of time is nothing short of obscene.

It is evident that students have not been following Lehigh’s social contract to social distance and limit social interactions to 10 people or less.

However, as much as it is the fault of students for being irresponsible, going to large unmasked gatherings, and spreading the virus, the responsibility also falls on the university to put tangible policy in place to penalize students for failure to adhere to rules and regulations.

This past semester started out by only testing students who chose the campus access option twice within the first two weeks of the semester. And for a while, there were no active cases of COVID-19 on or off campus, which the school made sure to boast about on its social media regularly. However, it is easy to have a low case count when there is little to no testing occurring.

And when the inevitable outbreak did occur, Lehigh closed its campus for two weeks, wasting the money of those who opted to pay for access to campus.

This semester students were required to show a negative test upon arrival, follow a moderated quarantine before classes began and partake in weekly testing for the first two weeks of the semester. After the initial two week testing period, 50 percent of students were planned to be tested each week.

This new method quickly proved ineffective. Within just two weeks, the case count more than tripled the 100 mark that shut down campus the semester prior.

The university administration knows that the majority of the infection occurs through off-campus social interactions, yet little is being done to inhibit students from attending such events.

There has been no protocol to check if students randomly selected for surveillance testing actually show up for their test, and there have been few reports of off-campus gatherings getting shut down by the police.

If students see no consequences for violating social contract, it can’t be expected that they will alter their hazardous behavior.

Lehigh’s suggestion? Anonymously report your friends.

While many students have turned to anonymous reporting, the method has proven ineffective as Lehigh sits with more active cases than universities with student bodies five times its size.

The egregious mishandling of COVID-19 is only amplified by the hypocrisy that exists within Lehigh’s athletic department.

Throughout the various outbreaks that occurred last semester, athletics have continuously been paused and restarted, to only be paused again. When a player tests positive, they are put on a pause for a small, indefinite amount of time, unless it’s a sport like basketball, where everybody is considered a close contact.

But on multiple occasions, athletics have been able to resume 24 hours after a reported outbreak, despite potential incubation time ranging from three to 14 days.

Whether it be stronger planning or fostering a student body who is more willing to adhere to rules and regulations, it is time Lehigh takes a page out of the planning books of its peers. Our inability to handle COVID-19 is not only an embarrassment, but serves as a serious hazard to students, professors and the entire Bethlehem community.

———–

See also Andrew Scott, “Lehigh University urges double-masking, takes other precautions as coronavirus cases spike.” Morning Call, February 12, 2021.

Vaccine news!

Latest in a series of posts on the coronavirus

Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez announced that beginning tomorrow, the Bethlehem Health Bureau will add COVID-19 vaccine appointments to their clinic schedule. The number of appointments will be based on vaccine allocation for the week. Appointment slots for the following weeks’ clinics will be updated every Friday on the City of Bethlehem’s website until further notice. The most efficient way to schedule an appointment is through the City of Bethlehem’s website. Appointments can be scheduled by visiting https://www.bethlehem-pa.gov/Health-Bureau/Communicable-Diseases/COVID-19 and clicking on the COVID-19 vaccine tab. Due to limited vaccine supply, the Bethlehem Health Bureau is prioritizing appointments for City of Bethlehem residents, Northampton and Lehigh County residents as well as individuals living in a county without a health department.
In an effort to assist seniors without computer and internet access, the Bethlehem Health Bureau will reserve a set amount of vaccine appointments for City of Bethlehem and Northampton County residents who are 65 years of age and older. Seniors without computer or internet access can call the Bethlehem Health Bureau at 610-865-7083 to schedule an appointment. The appointments by phone will be limited so individuals with computer and internet access are encouraged to register online.
The Bethlehem Health Bureau is also implementing other various strategies to improve access to vaccinations among the senior population. The health bureau created a mobile COVID-19 vaccine unit to provide on-site COVID-19 vaccinations to individuals who live in senior living facilities in Bethlehem. In addition, the health bureau is partnering with a community-based agency to provide vaccine to seniors who are homebound and/or have mobility issues.

City: info on vaccine and on utility bills

Bethlehem Health Bureau To Expand Vaccine Distribution

Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez announces that the Bethlehem Health Bureau will expand vaccine distribution.

The Bethlehem Health Bureau will now expand COVID-19 vaccines to individuals age 65 or older and individuals 18-64 years of age with certain medical conditions that increase the risk of severe illness from the virus.

“The Bethlehem Health Bureau has done an outstanding job vaccinating over 2,850 individuals in the first priority group.  We now look forward to vaccinating additional individuals who are now eligible to receive the vaccine,” Mayor Bob Donchez stated.

The Bethlehem Health Bureau is expected to receive vaccine shipments on a weekly basis. The Bethlehem Health Bureau will continue to provide updates as to when the vaccine will be made available to additional groups.

For a complete list of groups who are eligible to get vaccinated in the 1A phase or to schedule an appointment at one of our upcoming clinics, please visit https://www.bethlehem-pa.gov/Health-Bureau/Communicable-Diseases/COVID-19 and click on the COVID-19 vaccine tab.

Proof that individuals are eligible to receive a vaccine in the 1A phase will be required at the time of appointment.

Individuals can contact the Bethlehem Health Bureau at (610) 865-7083 with any questions.

———–

Mayor Bob Donchez announced today that the City of Bethlehem is experiencing significant delays affecting delivery of customer utility bills due to problems within the US Postal Service as they deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and backlog from the Christmas holiday season.  Utility bills (which include water, sewer, and recycling charges to city residents) are running two to three weeks behind schedule.

Due to these problems which are outside the customer’s control, the City has suspended all penalties and late fees on overdue utility bills until March 31, 2021. We appreciate our customer’s patience as we work with the USPS to rectify the situation.

USPS expects to catch up with their backlog and resume normal delivery schedule in the next few weeks.

COVID-19 infections here among highest in the state

Latest in a series of posts on the coronavirus

“Bethlehem and Whitehall Township among Pa. ZIP codes with the most new COVID-19 infections this week.” lehighvalleylive, January 15, 2021.

All I can give you is the grim headline. My Gadfly “subscriber exclusive” account to lehighvalleylive.com isn’t working. Sigh.

Stay safe out there!

The virus speaks

Latest in a series of posts on the Arts in Bethlehem

Since I am
I must be
be that what nature has bequeathed upon me
a role not of my choice
but one I am destined to fulfill
for my existence demands you as host
a kindness demanding your demise
and as you know my nature
you plan my demise
and I must be vigilant
to preserve who I am
for me to preserve my nature
such is the way of life
each to be what I am
my role is my destiny

I am referring to the common virus. I have for the moment assigned it our traits. As a dog cannot meow and a cat cannot bark, they are restricted by their nature to act like dogs and cats. So all forms of living beings suffer by that restriction, except we humans who exist as nature’s highest form and as such have privileges such as living outside of our nature. A virus, being a low form, but what if a virus could communicate and be free to tell us that it does not enjoy what is forced upon it but must live within its nature? Have we, as humans, lived within the best which our nature can allow? Is a lower form living within its nature evil by our definition if it wishes only to live to survive? The universe does not need us or really care whether or not we exist. Our egos demand it. We are simply part of a process. How has free will, that special gift relegated to just the highest biological form, served man?

Stephen Antalics

More on local vaccine clinics

Latest in a series of posts on the coronavirus

December 31, 2020

The Bethlehem Health Bureau has scheduled additional COVID-19 vaccine clinics through the month of January. These clinics are open to health care personnel (1A priority group) in the City of Bethlehem and in Northampton County. Health care personnel in this group include licensed medical professionals and care staff as well as home health agency staff. To schedule an appointment for one of the upcoming clinics, please click on the registration link for the clinic you plan to attend.
The dates and registration links for the upcoming clinics are as follows:
Tuesday, January 5, 2021 2:00-5:00
Thursday, January 7, 2021 4:00-6:00
Monday, January 11, 2021 10:00-1:00
Wednesday, January 13, 2021 3:00-6:00
Friday, January 15, 2021 3:00-6:00
Tuesday, January 19, 2021 10:00-1:00
Thursday, January 21, 2021 3:00-6:00
January 25, 2021 3:30-7:00
January 27, 2021 3:30-7:00
January 29, 2021 10:00-1:00
The Bethlehem Health Bureau is expected to receive vaccine shipments on a weekly basis. Following the distribution to the priority 1A group, the health bureau will provide vaccines to additional groups, including first responders and essential workers. Timing of the vaccine for the general public is not yet known at this time. The Bethlehem Health Bureau will continue to provide updates as to when the vaccine will be made available to additional groups.

Help is on the way! Bethlehem receives first vaccine supply!

Latest in a series of posts on the coronavirus

Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez announced today that the Bethlehem Health Bureau has received an initial allotment of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. The Bethlehem Health Bureau will begin vaccinating individuals in the first phase priority group, as defined by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, this week.
“This vaccine is critical in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and I encourage everyone who is eligible to get immunized,” Mayor Bob Donchez stated.
The Bethlehem Health Bureau is coordinating vaccination efforts for healthcare workers with the Allentown Health Bureau, Lehigh Valley Health Network and St. Luke’s University Health Network. Walgreens and CVS will begin vaccinating residents and employees in long-term care facilities this week as well.
The Bethlehem Health Bureau will distribute vaccine to the following priority populations in the City of Bethlehem and Northampton County during the first phase: home health care workers, school nurses, college and university health center staff, independent physicians, dermatologists, dentists, eye doctors, coroners and podiatrists. Any agency that is interested in receiving the Moderna vaccine and is part of the 1A priority group is encouraged to register by going to the City of Bethlehem’s COVID-19 webpage at https://www.bethlehem-pa.gov/…/Communicable…/COVID-19 and click under the vaccines tab or go directly to the following link: https://arcg.is/0LCGS40.
The Bethlehem Health Bureau is expected to receive vaccine shipments on a weekly basis. Following the distribution to the priority 1A group, the health bureau will provide vaccines to additional groups, including first responders and essential workers. Timing of the vaccine for the general public is not yet known at this time. The Bethlehem Health Bureau will continue to provide updates as to when the vaccine will be made available to additional groups.

Health of people and health of economy not opposed

Latest in a series of posts on the coronavirus

Peter Crownfield is officially retired but spends most of his time working with students in his role as internship coordinator for the Alliance for Sustainable Communities–Lehigh Valley

ref: And there’s economic mortality too

Gadfly:

The really sad thing is that both are the result of the US government’s ham-handed approach, setting health of people and health of the economy as opposed.

For decades, people have known how to deal with an epidemic:

• frequent testing, especially of people who are not showing any symptoms;
• effective isolation or quarantine of all who test positive or were exposed to those testing positive;
• basic precautions such as wearing masks when with others and frequent hand washing;
• spend money on treatment and protecting essential workers, not on vaccines;
• When the epidemic is as severe as this one, provide cash assistance to individuals & small local businesses.

None of these are difficult or controversial; they were all learned from experience with previous infectious diseases. None of them require shutting down businesses or events except those where large numbers of people are brought into close contact.

Countries that followed such practices this year have much, much lower fatality rates and much less harm to individuals & businesses.

Failure to strictly implement these common-sense policies in this country has killed about 350,000 people and caused serious harm to small, local businesses (especially when the big corporations are allowed to steal the meager assistance that was provided.

Peter

Councilman Callahan: “We have to find some way to help these businesses survive this”

Latest in a series of posts on the coronavirus

While not blaming anybody, including the governor, Councilman Callahan pressed Council and the Mayor to support the open container relaxation, calling attention to the importance of the restaurants to the vitality of the Northside downtown and calling attention to the sale of liquor as the source of their greatest profit margin. The Councilman recognized that the relaxation was a small thing, that it wouldn’t solve all problems, but that it would help these important small businesses survive. “It’s our job to help alleviate some of the pain,” the Councilman said, for businesses around for 15-20 years will not survive into February. If they close, it will be a “shame,” and we’re going to have a “hole” in the City. This is the least we can do to help them make it through the next couple of months, the Councilman argued, hoping to get the issue resolved right then at the meeting. The Mayor had previously said in a memo to Council that a positive effect of relaxation was “questionable” and “debatable,” but Councilman Callahan urged Council to go with the “professionalism” of the restaurant owners (5 mins.).

Councilman Callahan’s push for action ran into a snag. The Solicitor ruled that the request should be in writing. Councilman Callahan countered by asking that a letter he sent to Council a few days ago be considered the “written declaration,” pointing out that the next two weeks (3 actually) before Council meets again are the crucial downtown shopping time and waiting till then to approve action would not be good.  The Councilman asked for a show of “unity,” but “If it’s not the will of Council to help out the downtown businesses, I understand.” Perhaps sensing that there was something a bit snarky in Councilman Callahan’s words, President Waldron affirmed that he was certain all Council members wanted to support local business but that they couldn’t change the ordinance then under new business and that there were legal issues involved. The Mayor then entered the conversation affirming that the City has done “everything possible” to help the small businesses, but “on this issue, there’s reservations about legality and precedent” and Musik-Fest is a little different. Councilman Callahan countered that, though he didn’t know the legalities, there were many events (which he named) in which the open container law was relaxed. Continuing to push, and assuming Council was with him (indeed Councilpeople Negron and Colon did speak in favor of something being done), Councilman Callahan urged the Mayor to talk with the Downtown Business Association, the City Solicitor, and so forth again to see what could be done since now is the precise time that such a relaxation would have the most impact (6 mins.).

So that’s where we are left.

Decision-making interruptus.

Councilman Callahan is a stubborn man. And Gadfly has had occasion to chafe at the way his stubbornness has been irritating and self-defeating. But here his stubbornness seems a virtue.

The legalities the Mayor refers to were not explained.

The difference between this request and the Musik-Fest-type events was not explained.

What the City is choking on is not clear.

And while Gadfly was writing this Peter Crownfield commented on the previous post, indicating the decision should be a no-brainer, wondering about the ordinance to begin with.

Without such explanations, Gadfly has to feel that the prohibition against open containers should be waived and by Mayoral decree if necessary.

What are you thinking?

“We are begging you” . . .”We’re sort of in desperate straits right now”

Latest in a series of posts on the coronavirus

Gadfly has always said he loves your voices.

That has limits.

It hurts to amplify these voices.

In addition to the Borderline owner, two prominent Northside downtown business owners called in to City Council last night to ask for relaxation of the open container laws that would enable them to sell alcoholic drinks to customers who could then walk around with them socializing and shopping during the holiday season. They are now allowed to sell take-out, take home drinks, but they are asking for so-called open container permission, such as happens at Musik-Fest and other kinds of events.

They know such support would not solve their problems.

But they are desperadoes, begging and beseeching for any kind of help.

Apollo Grille (2 mins.):

  • Our downtown businesses are drowning.
  • Anything that can be done on the City of Bethlehem’s part to help us, to rescue us . . . would be greatly appreciated.
  • Holiday season . . . relaxation . . . would help us significantly.
  • [small business, keeping employees, washing own windows, sweeping own sidewalks]
  • It would have impact on businesses that are suffering so much right now.
  • Anything you can do . . . please, we are begging you.

McCarthy’s (3 mins.):

  • I personally laid off 3/4’s of my staff on Friday . . . I was in tears.
  •  . . . allow people to walk around with a drink, it might help.
  • We’re sort of in desperate straits right now.
  • We’re kind of on our last legs.
  •  . . . holding on by the skin of our teeth.
  • Anything the City could do would be helpful.
  • I beseech you, please, consider doing this.
  • It’s ok at Musik-Fest, so why wouldn’t it be ok in December or January?

This specific issue of open containers occasioned significant discussion at the Council meeting.

Next post.

Continue to think about what you would do if you were in charge.

to be continued . . .

And there’s economic mortality too

Latest in a series of posts on the coronavirus

There were voices at Council last night that reminded us of the loss of businesses too.

A different kind of death.

Goddam pandemic.

The governor has tightened the restrictions.

Listen to the owner of the Borderline who called in to Council last night (2 mins.).

He got a call from the Health Bureau to stop indoor dining — or else.

“Isn’t there something the Mayor can do about this??

  • What do you want us to do? Curbside is not going to pay my bills.
  • How do I give my waitresses a nice Christmas?
  • I have 27 employees, and I have to lay off 22.
  • My restaurant is COVID free, I have 6 air purifiers in my restaurant . . . My air is 99.1% germ free.
  • And now they’re going to take my health license because I’m open for indoor dining?
  • Isn’t there something the Mayor can do about this?
  • The Mayor can overrule this.
  • Or the Mayor could not worry about this . . .
  • What can I do?
  • This is threatening to close my business.

Tough spot for the Borderline guy.

Tough spot for the Mayor.

I often ask you to role play.

What would you do if you were Mayor?

Tough call.

to be continued in the next post . . .

 

A morning moment of silence

Latest in a series of posts on the coronavirus

Gadfly has always been acutely aware of the pandemic: age and household vulnerabilities.

But especially since the virus moved in next door, as he reported to you the other day.

So he begins today with the Mayor’s report at Council last night on the status of the virus in town.

Which includes 85 deaths, an average age of 37 in recent cases, and 45% of recent cases Latino (Bethlehem Latino population = 30%).

Listen to these and other statistics as well as vaccine info (1.5 mins.):

Councilwoman Crampsie Smith suggested a moment of silence for our 85 dead, and President Waldron called for that moment at the end of the meeting.

In a real sense this silence, a time when nothing was said, should be thought of as the most important part of the meeting.

Let’s join with the Council folk in a wider community member moment of silence to start our day:

Something to think about, we who are lucky, as we shovel out today and tomorrow . . .

 

“School spirit alone cannot Prevent COVID spread”

Latest in a series of posts on the coronavirus

To my fellow Citizens of Bethlehem,

I am forwarding two articles for your attention.

The first article is from this Sunday’s front page, entitled “After Students came Back, Deaths Rose In College Towns.” It recounts data learned through contact tracing, which confirms that asymptomatic students do in fact have an effect on the larger community.

I have communicated, or attempted to, repeatedly, with the Bethlehem Health Bureau for months about this subject. I did communicate directly with Moravian as well. My concern has been and continues to be their lack of routine testing. Latest videos on the college website tout their plans to bring students back to campus, including new students, as of January 18. Any testing plan is completely unavailable, in contrast to other local colleges and universities.It seems to me that any reasonable person, especially those who live in the immediate vicinity of Moravian, or frequent the same businesses as their students (many of whom live off campus) has reason for concern.

I have attempted to bring this issue to the attention of City Council and will continue to do so. It’s interesting that Council is conducting virtual meetings yet condoning the college policies through inaction.

Given the recent and predicted rates of infection, I think it’s unconscionable for Moravian to bring students to campus in January, particularly if they again do not test students upon arrival.  Surveillance testing is the responsible course of action but inquiries about doing so have met a brick wall, and a lot of assertions that Hounds can do what no one else can! School spirit alone cannot Prevent COVID spread.
It would be gratifying if someone in the city would take a greater interest in public health and investigate this information.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/12/us/covid-colleges-nursing-homes.html from Sunday’s front page.

Thank you very much for your attention to this important matter.
Betsy C. Golden
1124 Main Street
Bethlehem

The virus is living next door to the Gadfly

Latest in a series of posts on the coronavirus

video

Excellent story and video on how the virus spreads, even with masks on.

Gadfly just learned the family living across the wall from him as well as their extended family are all infected.

14 of them.

No one in hospital.

One has pneumonia, one is on the verge of pneumonia, one is not “bouncing back” well.

The others suffer coughs, fatigue, and various etcetera but seem to be responding satisfactorily.

They didn’t tell us, learned by accident.

They were all together across the wall Thanksgiving.

Stay Safe.

Help keep others safe.

Virus rules for colleges

Latest in a series of posts on the coronavirus

While it’s on my mind.

Gadfly has been worried about oversight of testing on our college campuses.

Pennsylvania finally issued rules for testing at colleges and universities.

Moot now because our local sites of higher learning have cleared out.

But Gadfly hopes that someone is making sure Lehigh and Moravian follow the rules when things start up again.

Both had spikes at the end of classes.

Lehigh has a lot of people living in the community, Moravian not so many but neighborhood residents have registered their concerns with Gadfly.

Let’s make sure they follow the rules.

The following from the Morning Call, November 17 and 18:

College, universities

In addition to travel and mask rules, Levine announced these new recommendations for colleges and universities:

  • Colleges and universities should implement a testing plan for when students return to campus following the holidays, and establish routine protocols for testing.
  • Colleges and universities should have adequate capacity for isolation and quarantine and should be prepared to enforce violations of established policies such as mask wearing and physical distancing.
  • Every college and university should test all students at the beginning of each term, when returning to campus after a break and to have regular screening testing throughout the semester/term.

Lehigh spikes (again)!

Latest in a series of posts on the coronavirus

Selections from “Pennsylvania breaks daily COVID-19 case count record, Lehigh sees big spike.” Lehigh University Brown and White, November 18, 2020.

Lehigh’s COVID-19 dashboard is reporting 91 total active cases of COVID-19 among students living in the Bethlehem area as of Nov. 18, marking a 30-case increase from one day ago.

There are 31 on-campus cases and 60 off-campus cases.

On Nov. 9, there were just seven total active COVID-19 cases among Lehigh students living in Bethlehem.

Death and taxes in Bethlehem: the Mayor reports on the virus and the budget

Latest in a series of posts on City Government

Gadfly picking up on reporting about the City Council meeting Tuesday night after losing yesterday to his “other life.”

First things first.

What is in front of us all, death (the virus) and taxes (the budget).

The Mayor read a brief report from Health Bureau Director Wenrich on the virus (1 min.):

No surprise, the “numbers” are going up, especially at work sites and long-term care facilities. Just the facts, no elaboration by the Mayor or the Health Director.

The Mayor read his previously read budget speech. 

No surprise — this is a “gut-punch” year — the Mayor is proposing a 5% increase ($46 increase for the average homeownwer), and, among other things, cutting 4 firefighters and 2 Service Center employees.

Here are some selected passages:

The impact of the pandemic derailed economic activity across the country and Bethlehem was not spared. Our revenues will not meet projections this year. We made a number of adjustments to reduce expenses and limit the deficit. I immediately issued a hiring freeze. Some employees were furloughed. The recycling center and yard waste facility were closed. Pools and parks were closed. Traditional summer programming was cancelled. My financial team met with each department to target specific reductions in line items, and postponed a number of planned projects.

In the midst of this, Standard and Poor’s conducted a credit review in July. They analyzed our financial status and listened to our strategies for the future. They issued a report that re-affirmed our A+ credit rating, with a stable outlook.

Our strong financial position was built by developing and implementing sound financial strategies. I want to take this opportunity to thank my Financial Advisory Committee, members of City Council, and City Controller, George Yasso, for working with my Administration during my tenure to create a successful budgeting process.

2020 has certainly delivered a punch to the gut, but we have responded, and will make it to the end of the year on stable ground.

2021 will present a whole new set of challenges that will need to be met. Even under the best scenario the impact of the pandemic will continue to be with us well into next year.

The financial impact of the pandemic became clear enough by late summer, that we were able to begin running projections for 2021. Our initial budget model revealed a deficit of $4.5 million, primarily driven by two items, the loss of revenue due to the ongoing effects of the pandemic, and another increase in pension obligations.

Projections indicate that many of our revenue sources will be significantly reduced in 2021. Earned Income Tax, one of our largest line items, is subject to employment levels, and it falls when unemployment rises.

Another large line item is the casino host fee. Although Wind Creek has continued to make their quarterly base host fee payment of $2 million, the activity inside the casino is limited for safety reasons, and thus the incremental fee that is based on gaming activity will not reach prior levels of nearly $500,000 per quarter. General economic activity requiring permits and inspections, will continue to be affected, as it has been this year.

The other major factor complicating this budget is increased pension obligations. Pensions have often been the topic of concern at budget time in cities across the Commonwealth. Every other year we are faced with adjustments to our Minimum Municipal Obligation, or MMO, which is the City’s required payment into the pension funds.

this summer, when our bi-annual actuarial pension study was completed, it was confirmed that Bethlehem’s pension payments will increase by over one million dollars next year.

In 2021, our police pension MMO alone will increase by $900,000 to $7.2 million. Fire pension MMO will increase by $200,000, to $4.4 million. Total pension expense will rise to $16.2 million in 2021, which represents 18.5% of our overall General Fund budget.

Understanding the size of the projected deficit, all departments were tasked with intense cutting of discretionary line item expenses. In addition, we postponed our borrowing that was planned for 2021. Our 5-year capital plan typically includes a bond borrowing of approximately $5 million in order to complete capital projects and purchases. Bond borrowing will be postponed until 2022 when the economy is hopefully back on firmer footing.

In previous years, that would have been enough to balance the budget. Unfortunately, it will not be enough for 2021, and additional steps will be needed. During my tenure, we have streamlined operations, refinanced debt at lower rates, increased the use of tablets and technology, and leveraged our purchasing power to achieve better deals for energy, banking, and healthcare. Those decisions have made us a stronger organization. It also has made it more difficult to find incremental improvements to address budget deficits.

Due to the pandemic, we anticipate a loss of $1 million dollars in revenue in 2021 in the areas of EIT, casino activity, and economic development. Although it is not desirable to use cash balance to replace recurring revenue, I believe it is appropriate to use $1 million from our cash account towards balancing our budget in 2021. Hopefully, the effects of the pandemic, will begin to improve by the end of next year, and those specific line items will begin to return to previous levels, negating the need for ongoing cash infusions.

The continued increase in pension obligations is more concerning, as it is not a one-time event. Difficult decisions were made in order to implement the corrective action needed to flatten the curve. Police and Fire pensions have continued to increase at rates that are just not sustainable to a budget. Our revenues do not mirror the increase in pension obligations.

To offset the steady growth through the years, there have been personnel cuts across several departments that have reduced staffing to the point, it has become a challenge to complete primary functions and meet daily responsibilities. Continuing to reduce personnel in departments to offset increased costs of other departments creates a fundamental imbalance in an organization. Public Safety is the highest priority, but not the only responsibility of the City.

Pensions that were promised years ago have been earned through loyal public service, but represent a significant burden on the budget of the City, not only by the size, but the rapid rate of growth. The only path to truly slow and contain this growth, without any pension reform from Harrisburg, is to adjust staffing levels. Not taking action will only perpetuate the problem.

Since becoming Fire Chief, Chief Achey has introduced a number of initiatives to improve functions and efficiencies. With the addition of two (and soon to be three) new engines, the Department is more dynamic and flexible than ever before. By reducing one position on each platoon, the Fire Department will reduce staffing, through attrition, from 110 to 106. I have the utmost confidence they will continue to provide the high level of service to the residents of Bethlehem.

Two additional positions will be eliminated from the Bethlehem Service Center. The Service Center has been successful in responding to non-emergency calls, emails, and App submissions from residents and visitors since the creation of the Center in May of 2019. Now that the Center has been in operation for a year, efficiencies have been identified, and the staffing will be reduced from 15 to 13. The Center will still be operational 24/7/365 days a year.

The six personnel reductions between the departments will save $500,000 each year in salary and benefits, and just as importantly help control future pension obligations.

The City’s workforce will drop from a high of 670 in 2010 to 588 during 2021, which will be the lowest in many decades. In order to close the remaining gap and balance the budget, I am proposing a .92 mil (5%) property tax increase for 2021. For a home assessed at $50,000, that would equate to a $46 per year increase.

2020 has been, by far, the most difficult year of my 7-year Administration. I know you join me in that thought and I hope and pray that we will turn the corner in 2021.

A reminder that the second budget hearing is tonight. Tune in.

Moravian College in virus lockdown

Latest in a series of posts on the coronavirus

Moravian College – Health Alerts

“While I thought, just a few days ago, we would make it to the end of the semester, I now realize our campus, our students, and our families are at risk from an ever-growing list of students going into quarantine and contracting COVID on our campus.”
Moravian College president Grigsby

Selections from Kayla Dwyer, “Moravian College in two-week lockdown before Thanksgiving due to jump in COVID exposure.” Morning Call, November 12, 2020.

Moravian College is in a two-week campus lockdown before students go home for Thanksgiving in light of a recent spike in students quarantining due to exposure to the coronavirus.

The college shifted to Tier 3 of its safety plan Wednesday morning, which means all classes except required labs and clinicals are online, and all campus buildings are closed except residence halls. College officials made the call after the number of students quarantining on campus jumped from six to 27 in the previous day, and the campus had five positive cases in the previous five days.

This poses a danger to the students’ families, President Bryon Grigsby wrote in a message to students Wednesday.

“While I thought, just a few days ago, we would make it to the end of the semester, I now realize our campus, our students, and our families are at risk from an ever-growing list of students going into quarantine and contracting COVID on our campus,” he wrote.

During lockdown, on-campus students are encouraged to stay in their dorms, sports teams cannot practice, and dining options are packaged or take-out only.

Since August, Moravian has had 32 positive cases among students on and off campus, according to its dashboard.

In his message to students, Grigsby alluded to off-campus parties that seem to have a bearing on the numbers, particularly since Halloween.

“The rumors I hear about large, unsafe social gatherings have significantly increased in the last few days and I suspect many of those rumors are based in fact,” he wrote.

In his message, he pleaded for compliance for the sake of students’ families.

“I know many, if not all of us have COVID-19 fatigue. I have COVID fatigue,” he wrote. “But this worldwide pandemic doesn’t cater to our desires. And when we live in a community, the actions of a few can and do impact the actions of the larger group.”