PHILADELPHIA (CBS/AP) — Another 2.6 million people across western Pennsylvania began to emerge from pandemic restrictions Friday as Gov. Tom Wolf announced that 12 more counties soon will join them in a partial easing, but not Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs. Wolf said that Adams, Beaver, Carbon, Columbia, Cumberland, Juniata, Mifflin, Perry, Susquehanna, Wyoming, Wayne and York will be the next batch of counties moving to the “yellow” phase of his reopening plan, effective May 22.
They are primarily in the south-central and northeast regions of the state.
They’ll join residents of 13 lightly impacted counties — including the cities of Pittsburgh, Johnstown and Altoona — where Wolf lifted his stay-at-home orders on Friday and gave permission for retailers and other types of businesses to reopen. Twenty-four counties across a vast swath of primarily rural northern Pennsylvania were the first to see a partial reopening last week.
“Through our social distancing efforts, we have not only reversed a trajectory of exponential new case growth – we have cut it in half,” Wolf said. “And some of the counties that will be shifting into the yellow phase next week eliminated concerns that we had just two weeks ago. So please, keep up your efforts in the fight so we can continue to add counties to the list of those in the yellow phase. Thank you again for your patience and your hard work.”
All told, by the end of next week, more than 40% of Pennsylvania’s population of 12.8 million will have seen an easing of pandemic restrictions that were intended to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with very ill COVID-19 patients.
Wolf says he is continuing a cadenced and measured approach to reopening the commonwealth. The densely-populated Philadelphia region remains in the restrictive red zone as stay-at-home orders continue through June 4.
“If you live in one of the 18 counties that remains in the red zone, you may feel disappointed or frustrated right now,” Wolf said. “As the leader of this commonwealth, I’m responsible for the health and safety of all Pennsylvanians, and I can’t and I will not let this virus ravage our communities. So, I got to take seriously the advice of scientists, our medical professionals and our epidemiologists.”
Eighteen counties remain in the red phase but health officials do say they’re seeing progress across the state due to more testing, social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
“Across the state, the rate of infection has been declining over the last 14 days,” Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said. “That is good news for Pennsylvania as we continue to move forward toward a carefully, coordinated phased opening.”
The state’s efforts to contain a virus outbreak that has sickened over 60,000 and killed more than 4,300 statewide have cratered the Pennsylvania economy, and Wolf is under pressure from Republican and some Democratic county officeholders to reopen more quickly. Some GOP-controlled counties have vowed to lift restrictions on their own — without Wolf’s blessing — bringing threats of retaliation from the Democratic governor.
In the counties where Wolf has lifted restrictions, people are now permitted to gather in groups of up to 25, although larger crowds remain prohibited. A wide range of retailers, offices and industrial sites can resume operating while observing state and federal health guidelines intended to prevent viral transmission.
However, gyms, barber shops, nail salons, casinos, theaters and other such venues are required to remain closed and other restrictions will remain in place, including a ban on youth sports. And bars and restaurants may still offer only delivery or takeout service.
Pennsylvania, which borders hard-hit New York and New Jersey, has about the 10th highest rate of coronavirus infection nationally, according to federal statistics.
Critics of Wolf’s shutdown orders, primarily Republicans, contend that they are inflicting undue suffering and are no longer warranted, saying he has met his original objective of ensuring that hospitals did not become overwhelmed. Local officials have cited the opinions of doctors at their area health systems who say the state’s economy can safely reopen and co-exist with the virus.
Sign-waving protesters, many of them without masks, staged another rally at the state Capitol on Friday to protest the shutdown.
Small business owners in particular have chafed against Wolf’s closure of “non-life-sustaining” businesses, saying it threatens to drive them out of business. A handful of gyms, barbers, hair salons and restaurants have opened in defiance of the governor, saying they can operate without putting their employees’ or customers’ health at risk. Wolf has said they are jeopardizing their business licenses and other governmental approvals to operate.
About 2 million Pennsylvania residents have lost their jobs since mid-March. Food and milk giveaways draw long lines. Some people have gone two months without money because of the state’s problem-plagued online unemployment benefits portal.
CBS3’s Natasha Brown contributed to this report.
(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)