Pennsylvania governor signals hope for June NASCAR race

Christian Eckes drives down the front straight during an ARCA Series auto race at Pocono Raceway, Friday, July 26, 2019, in Long Pond, Pa.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said a NASCAR event planned for the Pocono Raceway next month can proceed if the county progresses to the yellow stage of his phased economic reopening plan.

“If Monroe County goes to yellow before that race happens and NASCAR, in fact, has the competition without spectators in the stands, and they follow other guidelines to keep the competitors safe, yeah,” he said during a Monday news conference.

As of May 22, just 18 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties will remain in the most restrictive red phase of Wolf’s plan that includes a stay at home order until June 4 — Monroe County among them. Public health officials have identified more than 1,500 cases of COVID-19 in the area and some 88 residents have died, so far.

Wolf’s administration said moving from red to yellow requires a county’s infection rate fall close to or below 50 new cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period. Evidence of slowed community spread, as well as a demonstrated ability to ramp up testing and contact tracing also proves critical to a region’s reopening, the governor said.

The state’s uneven application of the target metrics, however, has drawn sharp criticism, especially from legislative Republicans. On Monday, House GOP members — deep into a legislative campaign to reopen businesses ahead of the governor’s schedule — moved a bill that would give extra assurance to the motor sports industry anyway.

The House State Government Committee voted along party lines Monday in support of measure that would reopen outdoor recreational activities, including motor sporting events, so long as facilities could adhere to social distancing guidelines.

“The one size fits all, top down approach doesn’t work,” said Rep. Chris Dush, R-Jefferson. “It’s hurting people. It’s devastating the economy. Let our people decide if they want to reopen.”

But Democrats on the committee questioned the bill’s language, noting that it doesn’t appear to prevent fans from gathering if, for example, NASCAR changes its no-spectator policy before the Pocono Raceway event scheduled for June 25-28 kicks off.

“Before we begin to green light sports like NASCAR, we should have more of a formal policy on this,” said Minority Chairman Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Philadelphia. “As currently written … fans could come in large numbers, in the thousands, to attend motor sports. I find that very concerning.”

Boyle pointed to evidence that suggests a Feb. 19 soccer match in northern Italy triggered the nation’s massive outbreak that has so far killed more than 32,000. The country’s health care system buckled under the onslaught of new infections, spawning some of the earliest and most restrictive lockdowns in all of Europe.

“There’s actual evidence between the soccer match and people getting the virus,” Boyle said. “These super spreading events are something we need to protect against.”

Majority Chairman Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, said the bill specifies facilities must follow health and safety guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — which includes no large gatherings.

“All of this has to be done within CDC guidelines,” he said. “It doesn’t allow for super crowds at this point.”