As the state confirmed a second COVID-19 case in Beaver County today, county officials stood on the courthouse steps and implored Shell to shut down its massive construction site in Potter Township.
Saying Beaver County health facilities have only 40 ventilators available for potential local novel coronavirus victims, county Commissioner Chairman Dan Camp said infection among Shell’s approximately 8,000 on-site workers could be catastrophic.
“I think the time has come and someone needs to say what many people are thinking, the Shell cracker plant must be temporarily suspended due to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic,” Camp said.
Camp said officials viewed pictures sent by concerned locals allegedly of an unsafe Shell work environment just prior to their press conference. “It’s time to shut down,” Camp said. “If something happens there our health-care facilities will not be able to undertake what they will have to do.”
Camp added that local leaders will not allow their desire to see the completion of the plant to cloud their judgement when it comes to the health and safety of the county citizens. He, as well as fellow commissioners Tony Amadio and Jack Manning, and state Reps. Josh Kail, Robert Matzie and Jim Marshal, urged Shell to stop work, and called on Gov. Tom Wolf to address the situation “in light of Shell’s minimal changes.”
Wolf this week urged non-essential businesses across the state to close for 14 days to help mitigate the virus spread. The order did not apply to construction projects such as the one being undertaken by Shell, but Wolf asked those sites to deploy social distancing practices. The county reported its first confirmed COVID-19 case, an Aliquippa-area resident, on Monday.
The officials said concerned residents have been calling and emailing. Camp said alleged workers have been complaining about being in an unsafe situation. BeaverCountian.com has received similar messages from alleged workers, one of whom said Shell sent home a coworker today who was showing symptoms, and alleging another coworker was possibly exposed through family.
Other readers have expressed concern that other plants such as Eaton’s Cutler-Hammer plant in Beaver are also still operating and workers are worried.
“People think we have powers that we don’t necessarily have,” Amadio said. “We can’t go in and tell someone to close down. We can’t do those kinds of things. We can’t even close the courthouse down without the Supreme Court.”
Matzie said he had a conversation with the state secretary of legislative affairs this morning, but no clear cut information emerged. Matzie said he believes the governor has the power to shut down the site.
Marshall said he’s concerned about safety on shared buses workers take to and from the site, as well as lunchrooms.
“Our health care system doesn’t have the capacity if that entire place becomes problematic,” Marshall said, adding that officials need to curtail an epidemic.
Camp said he believes the company should follow the state Department of Health and federal Centers for Disease Control guidelines to shut down for 14 days.
Manning, who said he worked in the industry for some time, said Shell couldn’t just flip a switch to close when it’s dealing with so many workers. He said he has confidence Shell will do the right thing and that its listening to a “multitude of voices” that there’s a sense of emergency.
“We’re in agreement. There’s potential for very catastrophic outbreak if something happens with 8,000 people coming in and out,” he said.
As of noon today, the CDC listed total national cases at 7,038 in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and US Virgin Islands. As of noon today, Pennsylvania’s health department identified 133 positive COVID-19 cases, including two in Beaver County, 11 in Allegheny County, and two in Washington County.
Manning urged residents to keep cool heads. “Stay calm. Stay safe. Stay home. And stay off social media, because I do think that’s exacerbating the mental health right now.
“Go to reputable websites for information. Go to reputable news sites and stay off social media, because what we’re seeing there is just exacerbating the angst and the mental health of our county.”
BeaverCountian.com multimedia contributor Matthew LaComb contributed to this report.