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HARRISBURG — As protesters gathered shoulder to shoulder outside the state Capitol to demand Pennsylvania fully reopen its economy, Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday said he is extending the statewide stay-at-home order until least May 8 — but left open the possibility of relaxing restrictions after that in counties where coronavirus cases remain low.
Additionally, Wolf said he will allow “limited construction” statewide beginning on the same date as long as precautions, including social distancing, are taken on site. The governor also said he is increasing the number of state-run wine and spirits stores that can offer curbside pickup, and that car sales will be allowed online.
“We are taking small steps toward regaining a degree of normalcy in Pennsylvania,” Wolf said Monday, though he cautioned, “This is not going to be resuming operations as they were in February.”
“We still don’t have a vaccine, we still don’t have an antibody test, and we still don’t have a way to cure COVID-19,” he said. “Without continuing to take precautions, we will all see a resurgence of this deadly virus. So we cannot relax.”
In March, Wolf began issuing stay-at-home orders for residents in the hardest hit counties, directing them to only leave the house for necessities such as groceries and medicine. He expanded that order statewide April 1. The governor also ordered all but “life-sustaining” businesses to shut down operations in March. Although his administration opened a waiver process for companies, it has been criticized as unfair and secretive.
Wolf’s announcement comes as his administration continues to field pressure, mainly from Republicans who control both legislative chambers, to provide specifics on a plan to allow companies to resume operations as long as they follow recommended guidelines to prevent further spread of the virus, including social distancing.
But Wolf has yet to articulate specific standards that must be met before he and public health officials feel comfortable relaxing restrictions.
Late last week, the governor said there will be no magic date for easing restrictions statewide. Instead, he said Pennsylvania will reopen gradually and most likely regionally, based on data on cases, testing, access to personal protective equipment, and hospital bed capacity.
The White House last week issued guidelines recommending that states wait to reopen 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 conduct robust testing and treat all patients “without crisis care.”
Once those benchmarks have been met, states can begin to reopen in phases, according to the guide, 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.
As it stands, experts say Pennsylvania lacks the testing capability and robust contact tracing that is needed to safely reopen.
Currently, Pennsylvania is reporting roughly 6,000 new tests daily. That number was higher — around 7,000 — in early April. One epidemiologist told Spotlight PA the state would need to increase its testing tenfold in order to answer key questions about the disease and its trajectory.
On Monday, Wolf said that Pennsylvania needs to build its testing capacity, but he stopped short of setting specific benchmarks for it. He also did not specify how low coronavirus cases would have to be before reopening a county.
“My hope is that … we are disciplining ourselves to say by a certain date, May 8, we will have in place the ability to do the testing we need, in the areas that we open," Wolf said. “And if we see evidence that says we are moving too fast in this area or in this business sector we can retreat. The goal is to keep Pennsylvanians safe, but we also want to give ourselves hope.”
Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA contributed to this story.
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