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‘I’m asking you to stay the course’: Gov. Tom Wolf outlines broad plan for reopening Pennsylvania

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Gov. Tom Wolf told reporters that he had not yet made a decision on whether to extend the stay-at-home order for residents past April 30.
Commonwealth Media Services

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HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday presented the broad outlines of his administration’s requirements for relaxing restrictions on businesses and residents in Pennsylvania, including expanded testing and systems for tracking when people are becoming sick with the coronavirus.

But he did not provide a specific timeline for reopening the state, nor did he provide benchmarks on which he would base that decision.

The Democratic governor instead advocated for taking a gradual and regional approach toward opening certain business and industry sectors, with a requirement that hospitals and health systems in those areas have adequate bed space and personal protective equipment.

He also pushed for stringent standards that businesses must meet before they reopen in those areas, including the ability to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for monitoring employees for illness and sanitizing shared workspaces.

A new modeling tool, which will allow him to work with public health and economic experts, will help guide the eventual timeline for reopening, administration officials said.

“I’m asking you to stay the course,” Wolf said during a live-streamed press conference Friday afternoon. “Unfortunately, we cannot flip a switch and reopen the commonwealth. There isn’t going to be one big day. We need to make data-driven decisions. And we can’t be impulsive. We can’t be emotional.”

He said his administration would provide more details on his plan next week.

Wolf, a Democrat, has come under increasing pressure from Republicans who control both legislative chambers to allow more companies to reopen, as long as they can follow federally-recommended guidelines for keeping employees safe. They have cited the crushing financial toll of the closures on small businesses and workers, many of whom have lost their jobs and have been forced to file for unemployment benefits in record numbers.

The Wolf administration last month created its own list of “life-sustaining” businesses that are allowed to operate during the pandemic. Businesses have balked at it because, they say, it is stricter than one compiled by federal officials, which many other states have chosen to follow.

Wolf has allowed shuttered businesses to apply for waivers to reopen, but that process has been criticized as slow, uneven, and unnecessarily cloaked in secrecy.

The governor has said he will veto bills being pushed by Republicans to reopen more businesses and allow counties to have more say in easing restrictions on companies and residents within their borders.

Earlier in the week, he told reporters that he had not yet made a decision on whether to extend the stay-at-home order for residents past April 30. His administration also imposed stricter rules on businesses that do remain open in order to protect employees and customers, including requiring them to enforce social distancing, stagger start times, and require masks. The order also laid out procedures for handling positive cases of virus.

Wolf has pushed back on pressure for him to relax his restrictions, arguing that his administration’s aggressive steps — and residents’ willingness to follow guidance — has helped prevent the state’s hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with sick patients. As of Friday, the state said nearly 30,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19, and 756 people have died after getting the virus.

Newly released federal guidelines call for a phased reopening of states. Earlier this week, the White House has provided a guide recommending that states wait until they report a downward trajectory of documented COVID-19 cases, or a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests, within a 14-day period.

The guide also calls for the ability to both conduct robust testing and treat all patients “without crisis care.” At the moment, Pennsylvania lacks the testing capability experts say is needed to safely reopen the state.

Once those benchmarks have been met, states can begin to reopen in phases, with vulnerable populations continuing to shelter at home during the first phase while everyone else avoids social gatherings of more than 10 people. Employers should also encourage teleworking during this phase.

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