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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania counties still under strict coronavirus restrictions — including hard-hit Philadelphia, its suburbs, and the Lehigh Valley — will move to the “yellow” reopening phase on June 5, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Friday.
“My stay-at-home order did exactly what it was intended to do: It saved lives,” Wolf said during a news conference, as he touted the state’s progress containing COVID-19. “Over the past two weeks, we have seen sustained reductions in hospitalizations. … Our new case rate has been shrinking.”
The announcement comes as the governor faces increasing political pressure to ease shutdown measures that have decimated local economies and resulted in more than two million residents seeking jobless benefits.
By June 5, Wolf said all counties will at least be in the yellow phase of his tiered reopening plan. The last to go will be Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lehigh, Northampton, Montgomery, and Philadelphia — counties that have yet to meet a case-decline standard Wolf’s administration established to determine when areas can safely begin loosening lockdown orders.
“As we know more and have more ability to test and know more about this disease, we have broadened the number of things that we look at,” Wolf said when asked about the metrics.
So far, state officials have moved 49 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties to the yellow phase, allowing some businesses to resume in-person operations and the public to move more freely. In this phase, limitations on public gatherings remain, and restaurants and bars remain closed to in-person business. Gyms, salons, malls, and movie theaters also remain closed.
Public health experts were split on the wisdom of the governor’s move to reopen every county, if only partially, including the hardest hit ones in the southeastern part of the state. Officials have said counties need to have sufficient levels of testing and contact tracing to identify and track new cases and prevent them from becoming outbreaks.
Mike LeVasseur, an epidemiology professor at Drexel University, said the state still does not have enough contact tracers in place to pinpoint where clusters of the coronavirus are occurring.
“There hasn’t been enough staff to be able to handle the epidemic that we’ve had,” he said. “Why don’t we just hold off for a bit, and wait a couple of weeks until we have a better idea of what the situation is?”
Chrysan Cronin, director and professor of public health at Muhlenberg College, said she’s always viewed one of the administration’s key metrics for partially reopening a county — fewer than 50 positive cases per 100,000 people over a two-week period — as arbitrary.
“That is not a scientifically proven number,” said Cronin. “We don’t learn about that in epidemiology school. They set a bar so they could watch the trends over time.”
Also Friday, Wolf announced that some counties will soon be allowed to enter the green phase, which lifts most restrictions on businesses but still requires them to follow social-distancing guidelines and other safety precautions. Restaurants, bars, gyms, hair salons, and barbershops will only be allowed to operate at 50% capacity, and large gatherings will be restricted. Officials said they will release more details next week.
The counties moving to green on May 29 are in north-central and northwest Pennsylvania: Bradford, Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Montour, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Venango, and Warren.
Additionally, eight counties will be able to move to yellow on May 29: Dauphin, Franklin, Huntingdon, Lebanon, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, and Schuylkill.
Partially reopening the entire state becomes dangerous, Cronin said, if people view it as a license to return to their normal patterns of daily life. The challenge for state officials, she said, will be to send a strong message to residents that they must continue taking precautions, such as wearing masks, practicing social distancing, and limiting their movements.
And that message should be consistent, Cronin said, noting that she has been alarmed that some state lawmakers have been pushing for a swift reopening.
Republicans in the General Assembly have for months pressured the administration to reopen parts of the economy more quickly, while Democrats in the southeast over the past week increased pressure on Wolf to communicate ways their counties could move to the yellow phase.
To see “how the politics is driving the public health response is fascinating to me — and sometimes terrifying to me as a public health person,” Cronin said.
David C. Damsker, who heads the Bucks County Health Department, said in an interview Friday that even hard-hit counties like his will be able to reopen safely. Like Cronin, Damsker called the governor’s metric for a downward trajectory of cases “arbitrary,” and noted that unlike state health officials, Bucks County has been tracking positive cases by their onset date, as opposed to when they were reported by labs, hospitals, and other health-care facilities.
That, combined with contact tracing, has given Bucks health officials a clearer picture of how and where the virus was spreading, he said.
“We could tell our … pure community spread is down,” said Damsker, adding that even a partial reopening will still require that businesses and residents take precautions when in public.
Wolf said Friday that residents who live in counties moving to the green phase should continue to wear masks in public, wash their hands, and implement social distancing.
“The more people who take precautions, the more likely we are to succeed at suppressing COVID-19,” Wolf said.
Inquirer staff writers Anna Orso and Chris Brennan contributed to this article.
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