Mayor refuses to close police department after officer tests positive for coronavirus

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Cornwall Mayor Mark Thomas said he had to rely on his own life experience and ‘every piece of advice I got.’

A majority of borough council members in Cornwall voted to temporarily shutter the police department after an officer tested positive for novel coronavirus last week, but the decision was overruled by Mayor Mark Thomas. 

The council also voted to declare a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 outbreak at a Thursday meeting to address the situation after an officer was confirmed to have COVID-19 on April 1.

The officer in this Lebanon County, Pa., department had called in sick to work the previous Friday, and was tested at a hospital over the weekend. Borough Manager Cody Rhoads said the officer is recovering at home. 

Borough council voted 4-2 at an emergency meeting on Thursday to temporarily stop operations at the department. Council member Marie Tribioli said they wanted to make sure officers who may have been exposed to the COVID-19 case could quarantine. 

“Since (the officer with COVID-19) was in the police department filing, using the phone, doing whatever they do in there, we felt it would be best if they quarantined,” Tribioli said. 

Under a mutual aid agreement signed by all county law enforcement agencies last month, nearby departments would have helped cover Cornwall Borough, and the two other municipalities the department serves — West Cornwall Township and Mt. Gretna — during the quarantine period. 

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But Thomas disagreed with the four council members who voted to shut down the department, and said he reversed course after consulting with a local doctor and several elected officials.

Thomas noted that officers are already limiting interaction with the public, and are taking other precautions, such as wearing a mask and gloves. 

“I had concerns, of course, but I had to take the advice of my own life experiences mixed in with every piece of advice I got,” Thomas said. 

Council member John Karinch also wanted to keep the department open. Temporarily closing operations would turn Cornwall, West Cornwall and Mt. Gretna into a “lawless area,” Karinch said. 

“There are a lot of bad people out there and they might want to take advantage of the situation,” Karinch said. “We’ve never closed down police stations before, why start now?”

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Department taking precautions

Police Chief Bruce Harris declined to comment about the decision to keep the department open, but said call volume has decreased dramatically in recent weeks due to shutdowns forced by the new coronavirus. 

The office was professionally cleaned after the officer reported his diagnosis,  Rhoads said, as were the squad cars. 

No other officers had shown any COVID-19 symptoms as of Monday, Rhoads said. A second officer who had used the same patrol car as the person with COVID-19 is self-quarantining. 

Officers are now wearing masks and gloves while out on calls, Thomas said. A spokesperson for the Department of Health said it is recommended that anyone who has close contact with someone who tested positive quarantine for two weeks. 

“If the individuals work together, but do not share close contact (being within six feet for extended periods of time) then they should monitor for symptoms and take other protective measures, such as wearing a mask, washing hands frequently, etc., but they do not need to be quarantined,” the spokesperson said in an email. 

Tribioli said she feels better that officers have masks and gloves, but doesn’t think it is enough to protect the public. 

“The problem with being a police officer … (is) you never know what’s going to happen if you have to respond to a call,” Tribioli said. 

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Emergency declaration

At the same meeting, council members voted unanimously to approve a declaration of disaster emergency for the borough. 

Rhoads said having an emergency declaration can be helpful when applying for federal and state funds in the future.

The declaration gives borough officials authorization to take actions necessary to help fight the pandemic, such as employing temporary workers, renting equipment or purchasing necessary supplies. 

“This pandemic is endangering the health, safety and welfare of a substantial number of persons residing in the Borough of Cornwall, Lebanon County, and threatens to create problems potentially greater in scope than the Borough may be able to resolve on its own,” the declaration reads.  

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