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PA Counties Struggle To Find Enough Masks, Gloves For In-Person Voting June 2

Emma Lee
Bob Russikoff wears a mask and gloves to vote in the special election for Pennsylvania House of Representatives in Bensalem. Russikoff voted at Cecelia Snyder Middle School, where poll workers said turnout was low, but better than expected.

Pennsylvania election directors face the unprecedented challenge of staffing voting locations for the June 2 primary while also taking steps to protect workers and voters from the coronavirus (and handling a historic number mailed ballots). Many say they aren’t ready.

Personal protective equipment – mask, gloves, hand sanitizers and other materials often referred to collectively by the acronym “PPE” – remains difficult or impossible to acquire, county elections officials said.

Berks County officials, for example, said they’ve obtained some items — such as gloves and hand sanitizer — for poll workers to use on June 2. But the county still faces “widespread issues surrounding PPE” acquisition in general, according to Brian A. Gottschall, the county’s director of Emergency Services.

“It is really all about what product, what quality, what quantity, and what are you willing to pay. All of those things are coming into play with respect to delivery timing,” Gottschall said.

Working with PPE manufacturers and sellers hasn’t been easy, he said.

“Pricing is absolutely ludicrous and terms are generally unreasonable at best and sometimes completely unacceptable. Literally, ‘Pay me now and maybe you will get some stuff some time in the future,’ is where some vendors are starting.”

About half of 40 county election directors who responded to a PA Post inquiry say they’re fully or partly prepared to adhere to coronavirus safety protocols on primary election day.

“Right now, that’s what we are banking on,” said Lawrence County Election Director Ed Allison. “We’ve put in orders for masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and so forth – only to have them canceled by the distributor.”

The other half, however, say they are relying on hygiene kits obtained by the Pennsylvania Department of State. DoS recently acquired $1 million worth of PPE for election workers and believes those supplies -will cover most of what counties need for the primary.

The state has about 6,000 kits in its possession, the maximum amount the supplier could guarantee in time for the primary, according to spokeswoman Wanda Murren.

“With several other states also holding elections June 2, we feel fortunate that we were able to get a guarantee for 6,000 kits,” Murren said. “And we believe that, after [polling place] consolidation plans are finalized and taking into account what counties have been able to procure, there will be enough.”

County election directors agreed that each kit contains enough PPE to cover the needs of the staff at one polling place for the entire day.

DoS won’t decide exactly how to distribute the kits until after counties have finalized their list of in-person voting locations, Murren said, which has to happen no later than two weeks before June 2.

At first glance, the DoS stockpile might appear to be sufficient for the primary: Pa. has about 7,000 polling places statewide under normal circumstances. But counties are expected to combine voting locations for the June 2 primary, a response to the fact that some voting sites (nursing homes and senior centers, for example) are now off limits to the public. Counties are also grappling with the fact that fewer election workers want to staff the polls due to the pandemic.

Already, Allegheny County officials have advanced a plan to operate just 200 voting venues for the primary, or 1,100 fewer than usual.

That would leave about 6,000 remaining statewide (which happens to work out to one PPE kit per polling place).

DoS has not yet signed off on Allegheny’s plan, which calls for operating just 15 percent of county polling places (state approval isn’t required unless a county wants to open fewer than 40 percent of locations typically available to voters, according to temporary rules a month ago for the state’s 2020 primary).

Murren says the state also expects to get a waiver application from Philadelphia (where officials say they’re still working on their plan to submit to the state), and she said other counties are expected to consolidate polling places at a level that won’t require DoS approval.

But a reduction in polling places doesn’t necessarily translate to an equivalent reduction in staffing because counties must maintain separate check-in stations, voting areas and machines for any precincts sharing the same location, according to guidance issued by DoS last week.

“The state has not provided any guidance, as of yet, on how this would reduce the number of poll workers,” said Bucks County Election Director Thomas Freitag.

Some counties already spent their own money on enough supplies to fully stock precincts and protect election workers because information wasn’t forthcoming from DoS sooner.

In Lancaster, for example, officials spent an extra $75,000 on plexiglass dividers (in addition to buying PPE for the polls) – one of at least three jurisdictions planning to use the plastic shields at voting locations.

Dauphin is another.

“We can’t wait for the DoS anymore,” said Dauphin County Election Director Jerry Feaser. “If we get stuff from them, we will hold it for November.”

The overwhelming majority of voters typically cast ballots in person; however, absentee and mail-in ballot requests have quadrupled since the last presidential primary due to voter’s concerns about the coronavirus and the advent of no-excuse vote-by-mail in Pennsylvania this year.

PA Post is a digital-first, citizen-focused news organization that connects Pennsylvanians with accountability and deep-dive reporting. For more stories from PA Post, visit PaPost.org.