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Sanctions coming for Washington Co. to minimize community spread of COVID-19

PITTSBURGH — Sanctions are coming for Washington County to minimize community spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to announce the full extent of these sanctions Wednesday. This comes days after Wolf reportedly placed three local counties -- including Washington -- on his “watch list” related to the rising rates of coronavirus infections. Those counties could be facing sanctions from the state if the numbers do not improve.

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“We received a call on Thursday from the governor’s office that Washington County is one of three counties in southwestern PA on a watch list that sanctions could be taken. We don’t know what those sanctions could be,” said Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan.

Leaders in Washington County said their daily COVID-19 case numbers are climbing and they fear their economy could take another major hit.

“We’re seeing more significant increases than we saw in March when we were at our worst,” Vaughan said.

On Tuesday, Channel 11′s Amy Hudak learned that the state will be targeting mitigation in specific areas, especially where young people have been hanging out.

Bars and restaurants will be affected, and hospitals are also preparing for an increase in cases and treatment for those who are ill -- including the availability of the drug remdesivir.

One county commissioner told Channel 11 there will also be limits to sizes of gatherings. She called this “targeted mitigation.”

Even though cases have gone up, Vaughan pointed to the fact that a lower percentage of people infected are requiring hospitalizations as a reason why she would prefer no sanctions at all.

“We still believe that we can encourage individuals to mask up and keep six feet apart. We can sustain what we are going through,” said Vaughan. “There has to be personal responsibility, and we disagree with the governor even having this authority to impose these sanctions.”

Wolf is also concerned about Allegheny County, the source of nearly half of all new COVID-19 cases in the state.

“We have seen breakouts in certain areas. Allegheny County is the big area of concern at this point,” Wolf said.

With bars, restaurants and casinos partially closed in Allegheny County, as well as restaurants offering takeout or delivery, some fear people will travel to neighboring counties, potentially spreading the virus.

“Most across the region and state are concerned about travel during this time,” Vaughan said.

Butler County commissioners said the reality is people travel for work, family, vacations and entertainment and that you can’t stop them.

“Wherever Allegheny County is, it impacts every county around them. We impact every county contiguous to us,” said Butler County Commissioner Kevin Boozel.

And while social distancing and wearing a mask might seem simple to some, it’s a highly charged and divisive topic.

“In 24 years of public service, this is an issue I’ve seen more anger from than any other issue,” Vaughan said.

County leaders are sending a direct message to those who disagree with taking all precautions: If you don’t do your part, we could see businesses shutting down ... again.

“I am asking everyone to please comply with the orders of masks and social distancing so Wash Co can remain open for business,” Vaughan said.

“Why would we want to go back to yellow?” Boozel said.

Local leaders also tell Channel 11 in their conversations with health care professionals, wearing a mask could be the new normal through the winter and even into next spring. Their next hurdle is what to do about school in the fall.