PHILADELPHIA (CBS/AP) — Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday he is anticipating easing some pandemic restrictions in Philadelphia and the heavily populated suburbs on June 5. Wolf is also lifting restrictions almost entirely in 17 rural counties next week as Pennsylvania continues to emerge from a shutdown imposed nearly two months ago to help slow the spread of the new virus.
“We feel comfortable and confident by that date of June 5, Philadelphia will be in a position that its citizens can safely move into the yellow phase,” Wolf said.
The “yellow” phase includes:
- Stay-at-home order is lifted
- Telework must continue where feasible
- Gatherings under 25 people are permitted
- In-person retail is allowed, curbside and delivery is preferable
- Child care can open with guidance
- Bars and restaurants remain limited to take-out and delivery
- Indoor recreation/entertainment venues remain closed
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney says his administration will release more information next week on what residents need to know when the city moves to the “yellow” reopening phase.
“But as we move to the next stage of the response, I need to remind Philadelphians that we are not yet out of the woods. The virus is still very present in our communities, and as we’ve seen, it disproportionately impacts people of color who suffer from chronic health conditions at a greater rate, making treating a COVID infection even harder,” Kenney said.
Kenney stated the stay-at-home order and social distancing measures “put us in a much safer position than we were in two months ago.”
“We successfully flattened the curve to prevent a hospital surge, and we undoubtedly slowed the spread of COVID-19 and saved many lives,” Kenney said. “I cannot thank our residents and business owners enough for their tremendous sacrifices during this extremely challenging time.”
Kenney also reminded residents the stay-at-home order is still in effect and to stay indoors to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
“The next two weeks are critical — if we see a spike in cases it will jeopardize any hope we have of beginning to reopen,” Kenney said.
“I don’t think you will see a fast spring on June 5th, 6th or 7th,” Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia President Rob Wonderling said.
The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia’s business members employ about 600,000 people in the region.
“We know that this business community, with the spirit of free enterprise and devotion to community and to each other, we are going to reopen safely,” Wonderling said.
Wolf is accelerating his reopening plan even though more than 20 Pennsylvania counties remain above the state’s target for new infections that were supposed to qualify them for an easing of pandemic restrictions — and eight counties are more than three times over.
Local elected officials, Republican and Democrats alike, have been pressing for shutdown relief amid skyrocketing unemployment, as have small business owners who are struggling to keep afloat.
Wolf is taking action amid a partisan blame game over whether governors or the president is responsible for the economic wreckage. That fight could have enormous implications in the November election in this presidential battleground state.
The Democratic governor is moving Philadelphia, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lehigh, Northampton and Montgomery to “yellow” on June 5, meaning that people will be able to freely leave their homes and retailers and other kinds of businesses will be allowed to reopen, though other restrictions remain.
Limitations on public gatherings will remain and restaurants and bars remain closed to in-person business. Gyms, salons, malls and movie theaters will remain closed.
Wolf cited a Drexel University study that showed the stay-at-home orders saved the lives of 7,000 Philadelphians.
“My stay at home order did exactly what it’s intended to do — save lives,” Wolf said.
Earlier Friday, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said residents should prepare for a “new normal” for when the city does reopen.
“As these numbers continue to go down, we’re getting closer to reopening. Whenever we reopen, however we reopen, there will be a new normal,” Farley said. “That new normal will be different from how things were before the epidemic came.”
Philadelphia reported 309 new cases and 56 more deaths, raising the citywide case total to 21,009 and the death toll to 1,221.
Chester County Commissioners said in a statement they are pleased the county “can begin to move forward in a safe and cautious way.”
“It is our goal that Chester County will move to the green phase no later than the end of June. But we must all continue to make every effort to contain the coronavirus. Wear masks, continue social distancing, work from home if you can, and continue all hygiene recommendations. Heed the yellow phase restrictions so that Chester County is ready to ‘go green’ safely by the end of June,” they said in a statement.
Eight counties are moving to yellow a week earlier, on May 29: Dauphin, Franklin, Huntingdon, Lebanon, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike and Schuylkill.
Wolf also announced the first batch of counties moving to “green,” the least restrictive phase of his reopening plan: Bradford, Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Montour, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Venango and Warren. All of them are lightly populated counties across a northern swath of the state.
Health officials tout more testing capabilities, more contact tracing and shrinking case numbers throughout the commonwealth as metrics used to loosen restrictions around the state.
Health officials have said they were working on specific guidelines for counties in the green phase.
On Friday, Pennsylvania reported 115 new deaths, bringing the statewide death toll to 4,984. There were another 866 new cases, raising the total to 66,258.
CBS3’s Natasha Brown and Alexandria Hoff contributed to this report.
(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)