New Yorkers Made These Bellwether Counties Pennsylvania’s Hotspot
Will they blame their Democratic governor for inaction, or Trump for their job losses?
In times of peace and prosperity, or in today’s case, a pandemic and economic crisis, Pennsylvanians ultimately decide the outcome of presidential elections. Beyond the Democratic protectorates of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the state’s ticket-splitting voters—nurturing a moderate disposition, shaped by tradition and pride—determine who gets an encore or the vaudeville hook.
This is especially true in the state’s northeast—home to Joe Biden’s birthplace, the anthracite coal region, and the Pocono Mountains—and the Lehigh Valley, perhaps this year’s biggest bellwether for Donald Trump’s fate. Both regions are now reeling from the coronavirus and statewide lockdown, making this geographical corner that much more unpredictable, yet crucial, in the election.
By mid-April, the Poconos’ Monroe County, along with Lehigh County, home to Allentown, and Luzerne County—which accounted for nearly 60 percent of Trump’s winning margin statewide in 2016—had the highest Covid-19 infection rates in Pennsylvania. Location caused this unfortunate distinction. Through demography, economics, and highways, the counties are inextricably linked to New York City and northern New Jersey. The insidious pathogen’s arrival was therefore inevitable, but preexisting conditions intensified these regional hotspots.
Monroe County, for example, has long illustrated the urban-rural divide. Since the 1980s, scores of New York metro residents have flocked to the county’s bucolic towns and gated communities for a more affordable quality of life. Today, the county is a major commuter hub where thousands of Pocono residents travel east—many in busses—on Route 80 to work in New York and New Jersey. Monroe is also a major tourist attraction, where city dwellers head “to the mountains” and enjoy weekends in lakeside cabins.
In March, as the crisis intensified, Monroe turned into a center for “escape-from-New York coronavirus tourism.” Social media and online advertisements of short-term rentals promoted “social distancing in comfort” and the opportunity to “Quarantine in the Poconos.”
“We are seeing an influx of New York license plates,” said State Rep. Maureen Madden (D – Monroe) at the time. “They’re actually coming here,” she added, “they’re spreading more germs, they’re taking more germs back.”
“This is not vacation time,” a Smithfield Township resident told LehighValleyLive.com. “I realize and understand people fleeing a hot zone; however, we are being asked to stay in place for a reason.”
By April 1, over a week after the county’s “stay-at-home” order, Governor Tom Wolf announced a temporary ban on the region’s short-term rentals. At that point, bus companies had suspended commuter services and the CDC urged residents from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut to refrain from “non-essential” domestic travel for 14 days. But it was too late in Monroe, which had the most Covid-19 cases per capita in Pennsylvania. Local health officials stated that the county resembled what was happening in New York. More than half of admissions at one local hospital were being treated for Covid-19. In response to rising case numbers, the state Department of Health and National Guard members set up a temporary hospital at East Stroudsburg University.
Meanwhile, the Lehigh Valley—a sprawling, populous region between the Poconos and suburban Philadelphia—confronted the same crisis with different underlying circumstances. Similar to Monroe County, thousands commute east on Route 78 in busses and cars to New Jersey and even Manhattan for work. But the Lehigh Valley is hardly a destination for rural tourism. Its proximity to New York has transformed the region into a top logistics hub, where massive fulfillment centers transport e-commerce packages throughout the East Coast. The Valley’s largest city, Allentown, has a population with strong familial ties to metro New York.
By late April, The Morning Call reported that Allentown’s “known rate of infection—1 case per 81 residents—remains more than four times greater than the known statewide rate, 10 times greater than Pittsburgh’s rate, and twice that of Philadelphia.” Public health experts withheld theories for the high rate, but the paper noted Center City Allentown’s population density, cramped apartments, and the high number of positive cases in regional warehouses. Reader comments on The Morning Call’s Facebook page, however, noted that the region’s New York connection, plus residents’ failure to social distance or wear masks, turned the city into a hotspot. “No surprise, really. Too many NYC friends and family there,” one commenter wrote.
The Covid-19 pandemic has proven most dramatic in Luzerne County’s Hazleton, an hour north of Allentown and an hour west of Monroe County. By late April, 4 percent of Hazleton’s population had tested positive for the virus. The city—a population of about 30,000 people packed into 6 square miles—now has among the nation’s highest rates of the virus. Just like the Poconos and the Lehigh Valley, a metro New York exodus played a major role in the local crisis.
When New Yorkers headed to Monroe County in March, many continued westward on Route 80 to Hazleton, which, since the early 2000s, has experienced a demographic transformation largely fueled by New York and Paterson, New Jersey. Packed passenger vans transported family and friends to the city, where they stayed in half-double homes. In recent years, landlords have turned many of these pre-war properties—intended for two families—into code-breaking apartments. Such conditions increased community spread, including to the area’s many industrial employers. As the New York Times’ Michael Powell reported this week, many of the city’s residents “faced a primal calculus. They could not leave jobs, even as co-workers fell sick and some brought the virus home with them.” One local meat-packaging plant closed after 130 workers tested positive for Covid-19. This perfect storm has proven especially dangerous for the Hazleton area’s large senior citizen population.
In early April, local health-care officials attributed Hazleton’s rising Covid-19 cases to a lack of social distancing. “Eighteen percent of our community are practicing social distancing,” noted the president of Hazleton’s hospital. In response, the mayor imposed a curfew, still in place, and Luzerne County’s manager even asked Governor Wolf to deploy the National Guard. Wolf denied the request. Meanwhile, local officials worked to stop transit companies from running New York vans. For now, Hazleton remains in lockdown—a community devastated by the crisis. A large testing center operates 30 minutes north at Wilkes-Barre’s Mohegan Sun arena, once a regular venue for Trump’s campaign stops and rallies.
The Covid-19 experiences in Hazleton, the Lehigh Valley, and the Poconos are the direct result of New York’s crisis and a subsequent population exodus. On May 8, 24 mostly rural counties will begin a phased reopening in Pennsylvania, but Luzerne, Monroe, and Lehigh counties will remain closed for the foreseeable future. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre-Hazleton area’s March unemployment rate was 7.1-percent—the highest of any metropolitan region in the state. The emotional shrapnel of this period will only increase.
How will each county’s voters respond on Election Day? In Luzerne and Monroe, residents on both political sides resent the Democratic governor’s response, believing his inaction in northeastern Pennsylvania reflected indifference. In 2016, Trump’s largest base was in Luzerne. It’s likely that the county’s voters—many lifelong Democrats—will reaffirm their support for Trump in response to the socioeconomic factors behind the local crisis. And in Monroe, which Trump lost by only 532 votes, a rural backlash could turn the county in the president’s favor. The Lehigh Valley, however, remains a toss-up. Before the crisis, the region was an economic powerhouse; warehousing development has even continued. Though Trump won the region’s Northampton County, voters still trend Democratic, and enough mercurial suburbanites—exhausted and angry—may embrace Biden.
In November, look to Pennsylvania’s northeast and Lehigh Valley to know how the night will end. Their pandemic experience will serve as the ultimate referendum on Trump’s presidency.
Charles F. McElwee III is assistant editor of City Journal. Follow him on Twitter at @CFMcElwee.