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County courthouse expected to reopen to Monday

SUNBURY — After being closed to the public since the middle of March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Northumberland County Courthouse is expected to reopen Monday, according to Court Administrator Kevin O’Hearn.

“We anticipate being open Monday,” O’Hearn said. “County officials, including President Judge Charles H. Saylor, are scheduled to meet today to discuss regulations that will be put in place to combat the coronavirus when the courthouse reopens.”

O’Hearn said citizens entering the courthouse, whose offices have remained open only to employees since March, will be required to wear face masks and abide by social distancing requirements and other regulations. He said each person will have their temperature taken at the front door to make sure they don’t have a fever, which is a symptom of COVID-19. He said anyone with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher will not be allowed in the building.

He said there will be limitations on the amount of people allowed in each department at one time. He said department heads will determine how many people can enter their respective offices at one time.

O’Hearn said there will be a limited amount of cases conducted in Courtroom 3 on the first floor, which is very small compared to the spacious two courtrooms on the second floor.

The court administrator said some department directors may require residents to make appointments to do business in their office as a precaution against overcrowding.

“We plan on taking every precaution to prevent the spread of the virus when we reopen,” O’Hearn said.

He said being closed to the public has created a significant backlog in criminal cases that are normally transacted each week. But he pointed out that keeping courthouse employees and the public as safe as possible remains the top priority.

At the county commissioners’ meeting Tuesday afternoon, Commissioner Chairman Sam Schiccatano said other county buildings will remain closed to the public for the time being.

Balancing economic benefits and public health risks, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Friday the reopening of 24 counties, including Northumberland, in the northwest and north-central regions of the state, moving them from red to yellow beginning at 12:01 a.m. May 8.

The 24 counties were deemed ready to move to a reopening – or yellow phase – because of low per-capita case counts, the ability to conduct contact tracing and testing, and appropriate population density to contain community spread.

“We are starting to look at how to open things up slowly and safely,” Schiccatano said. “Hopefully, if everyone continues to follow the guidelines, we will get to green as fast as possible.”

Commissioner Joe Klebon echoed Schiccatano’s comments and said it was important for county residents not to relax social distancing and mask wearing procedures so the county doesn’t revert to the red level.

Coal snags $31 million in U.S. loans for small businesses

Stimulus loans meant to help small businesses that have been hurt by the coronavirus pandemic are being doled out to coal companies, stoking criticism from environmentalists that the Trump administration is using the aid to help a preferred industry that was already in financial trouble.

The U.S. Small Business Administration has given more than $31 million in loans from the Paycheck Protection Program to publicly-traded coal mining companies, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

“The question is, is this a good use of taxpayer dollars when we have other businesses closing their doors? What is the long term viability of this industry?” said Jayson O’Neill, director of the Western Values Project, a Montana-based conservation group. “I would argue we should focus first on the small businesses that are in the most need.”

Among the recipients are Ramaco Resources, Rhino Resource Partners, Hallador Energy and American Resources.

The stimulus program has drawn criticism for other awards, including loans to Shake Shack, Potbelly and the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Lakers while millions of mom-and-pop firms were left stranded when the program ran out of money. The three companies have since returned the money amid an outcry.

The coal company funding came after the industry successfully lobbied the Trump administration to add the sector to its list of essential industries after being left off the original version, arguing that coal was “critical to supporting hospitals, health care providers and others on the front line.”

The industry — which also asked Congress for aid in March, arguing that coal is “absolutely critical” and should be preserved for national security reasons — says there is no reason why coal miners shouldn’t be recipients of stimulus funding.

In fact, the mining industry, which includes coal and other minerals as well as oil and gas extraction companies, tapped the first, $349 billion installment of the Paycheck Protection Program at a higher rate than other industries, a Bloomberg News analysis of payroll data found. Approved PPP loans covered more than 78% of the industry’s eligible payroll, compared to an average for all industries of 52%.

One possible explanation is that the SBA classifies many mining and extraction companies as small even if they have more than 500 employees, the standard for most other industries. Bituminous coal underground mining businesses, for example, can have as many as 1,500 employees and still qualify for PPP loans. Overall, the mining sector got 1.14% of Paycheck Protection Program loans, according to SBA data through April 16.

“The industry is experiencing many of the same challenges confronting so many other industries and deserves the same support,” said Ashley Burke, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association. “The program is intended to keep Americans employed and these funds will contribute to the industry’s efforts to safeguard the jobs of 116,000 Americans directly employed at our nation’s coal mines.”

Jennifer Kelly, a SBA spokeswoman, said it “is following the law as it executes the PPP program as defined by the Cares Act passed by Congress.”

Lexington, Kentucky-based Ramaco Resources received an $8.44 million loan on April 17. The company, which has 395 employees and didn’t respond to a request for comment, said in a filing that it would use the funding to recall about one-third of its furloughed work force and reopen a mine May 1. The company’s chairman, Randall Atkins, serves as vice-chair of the National Coal Council, an advisory committee to the secretary of energy.

In some cases, companies with ties to the Trump administration have received aid.

Rhino Resource Partners, which has 605 employees and is also based in Lexington, Kentucky, received a $10 million stimulus loan, the maximum allowed under the PPP program, according to a company filing. President Donald Trump tapped the company’s former chief executive officer David Zatezalo to serve as head of the nation’s mine safety agency in 2017. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.

American Resources, an Indiana-based mining company, received a $2.7 million loan on April 22, according to a filing. The company, which has 147 employees, was vaulted into national news headlines earlier this year after workers at one of its mines in eastern Kentucky blocked a loaded coal train from moving by camping out on train tracks after claiming they hadn’t been paid for weeks.

“During these unique and trying times, we are taking the opportunity to keep people working and are actively taking this opportunity to advance our environmental efforts as well as maintenance of our existing operations to put us in a position to grow our infrastructure platform once we get past COVID-19,” Mark Jensen, the chief executive officer of American Resources, said in a statement.

Coal miner and seller Hallador Energy, which hired former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt as a lobbyist last year, received a $10 million stimulus loan last month. The company has 915 employees, according to SEC data. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“The Paycheck Protection Program was set up to help working families keep the lights on and put food on the table, not enrich corporate shareholders,” said Ryan Schleeter, a spokesman for environmental group Greenpeace USA, which has opposed using stimulus funds to aid the fossil-fuel industry.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported in early March that American coal use plunged more than 13% in 2019, the most in 65 years, as power plants shut down across the country.

At least one opponent of the coal industry says its receipt of Paycheck Protection Program funding defies the purpose of a program established to help businesses survive the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic.

“The coal industry stands out as the member of the fossil fuel herd that was uniquely sick before Covid ever hit and is even worse off after. So this isn’t a bailout — that would require strong economic fundamentals in the first place,” said Justin Guay, director of global climate strategy for the Sunrise Project, an environmental group. “This is a bonfire — we’re just literally lighting our taxpayer dollars on fire because they will go bankrupt regardless. It’s just a matter of time.”

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Shamokin man charged with statutory sexual assault over three-year period

SHAMOKIN — A 31-year-old Shamokin man has been charged with statutory sexual assault and related offenses for allegedly engaging in sexual intercourse with a teen over a three-year period.

David J. Sperle, of 600 E. Commerce St., who is wanted on an arrest warrant, is charged by Patrolman Raymond Siko II with felonies of statutory sexual assault, sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault (two counts), corruption of minors and unlawful contact with a minor.

Police reported the offenses occurred between Jan. 1, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2019. Police said the female victim was 14 when the incidents began.

According to a criminal complaint filed at the office of Magisterial District Judge John Gembic III, Sperle is accused of having sex with the girl in the cab of his tractor-trailer while it was parked along Route 61. After that incident, police said Sperle told the victim that she would be in trouble if she told anyone about the sexual encounter.

Sperle also allegedly had sex with the teen at his home and on one occasion, choked the victim, causing her to become unconscious, police said.

During a consented interview with police on April 17, Sperle admitted to having sexual intercourse with the minor on only two occasions. Sperle admitted often talking to the victim about sex.

Sperle said he knew the victim’s age when the acts were committed.

The investigation began March 25.

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Bill would temporary allow restaurants, hotels to sell mixed drinks for off-premise consumption

HARRISBURG — A liquor reform bill that includes a provision allowing licensed restaurants and hotels impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic to temporarily sell mixed drinks for off-premise consumption passed the House with bipartisan support.

Rep. Kurt Masser, R-107, sponsored an amendment to Bill 327 allowing restaurants and hotels that have lost more than 25% of their average monthly sales, including alcohol sales, during the disaster emergency to sell prepared beverages or mixed drinks for off-premise consumption in quantities between 4 to 64 ounces.

The amendment passed by a 193-9 vote. Voting against were Reps. Gary Day, Mindy Fee, Mark Gillen, Keith Greiner, Dave Hickernell, John Lawrence, Jim Marshall, Brett Miller and David Zimmerman.

Rep. Perry Warren, D-Bucks, lead sponsor of the bill, said the amendment would support local restaurants selling food, beer and wine for curbside pickup and takeout during the crisis by allowing them to expand the products they can provide to consumers.

“I thank my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for supporting this legislation,” he added.

If approved by the Senate and signed by Gov. Tom Wolf, the bill would permit eligible establishments to sell packaged containers of mixed drinks no less than 4 ounces and no greater than 64 ounces in a single transaction prior to 11 p.m. during the emergency and mitigation period after the termination of the emergency, in which a licensee is operating at less than 60% capacity.

The sealed container must have a secure lid or cap designed to prevent consumption without removal of the lid or cap. A lid with sipping holes or opening for straws must be covered or affixed with an additional seal before sale.

The Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association (PLBTA) said that unlike other types of liquor licensees that can operate their base businesses, its members have not been allowed to do the same.

“While others are seeing expanded sales and profits, Pennsylvania restaurants and taverns have suffered lost markets and income,” the PLBTA stated in a news release.

The PLBTA said a study by the National Restaurant Association estimates that the Pennsylvania restaurant and food service industry lost more than $1.8 billion in sales in April. The same study indicates 96% of Pennsylvania restaurant operators have laid off or furloughed employees since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in March.

The PLBTA thanked Masser for spearheading the amendment, and Republican and Democrat members of the House who voted “to help small business taverns and licensed restaurants.”

Bill 327 would also amend the Liquor Code to clarify the process for a referendum on whether to allow for the sale of liquor in their municipality in a primary, municipal or general election.

Rep. Warren said passage of the bill would streamline the process for residents’ right to decide whether to permit alcohol sales in a municipality and would modernize the state liquor system to “better suit the needs of Pennsylvanians.”

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Guidelines to combat COVID-19 to be implemented for June 2 primary election

SUNBURY — Northumberland County Board of Elections Director Tara Purcell and Commissioner Chairman Sam Schiccatano said guidelines to combat COVID-19 will be implemented for the June 2 primary election.

During an election board meeting Tuesday afternoon, Purcell reported some polling stations may be consolidated in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

She said all registered voters will receive a letter announcing any changes in poll sites. She said the changes also will be advertised in local newspapers.

Schiccatano, who encouraged voters to submit absentee, write-ins and mail-in ballots, said, “We plan to make the primary election as safe as possible for the voters and poll workers.”

May 18 is the last day to update voter registrations and May 26 is the last day to apply for a mail-in ballot. June 2 is the deadline to return a mail-in ballot.

During the commissioners’ meeting that followed the board of elections session, Ned Sodrick was appointed to the Focus Central Pennsylvania Board for a one-year term ending Dec. 31, 2020.

The commissioners approved the adoption of “The Citizen Participation Plan” on behalf of SEDA-COG to allow virtual meetings to be part of the policy.

The board amended the job duties of Northumberland County Emergency Management Agency Director Steve Jeffery to include oversight of the county 911 department.

The commissioners unanimously approved 2020-2021 funding in the amount of $7,576 for the Mount Carmel Borough/Lower Anthracite Transportation System.

Mexican-Style Shrimp Casserole.