Updated 3:40 p.m. Friday
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced Friday that 24 counties in northwest and northcentral parts of the state will be the first to reopen in a limited capacity starting May 8.
Those counties are Bradford, Cameron, Centre, Clarion, Clearfield, Clinton, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, Lycoming, McKean, Mercer, Montour, Northumberland, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Union, Venango, and Warren.
Among the 24 counties, 18 have fewer than 50 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 15 have reported no deaths so far, according to the Department of Health.
Wolf said the main factors in deciding these counties can move to the “yellow” phase are low per-capita case counts, contact tracing and testing capabilities, and “appropriate population density to contain community spread.”
Last week, Governor Wolf detailed the color-coded plan the state will use for the phased reopening. Counties will move through red, yellow and green phases as restrictions are gradually lifted.
Currently, the entire state is under the “red” phase, where the most restrictions on businesses and individuals remain in place.
As the 24 counties move into the “yellow” phase next Friday, some businesses will be able to reopen while adhering to safety guidelines, although telework and masks are still encouraged and gyms and theaters won’t be allowed to open.
“The yellow phase recognizes that outbreaks of COVID-19 are still possible and operations that cannot allow for social distancing must remain closed,” Wolf said in an address Friday. “We'll need businesses to continue allowing workers to telework as much as possible and we'll need Pennsylvanians to continue to stay physically away from one another as much as possible.”
Ultimately, the “green” phase lifts nearly all restrictions, but safety protocols like wearing masks will still be required.
“Every human-to-human contact is a chance for the virus to spread, so more contacts mean a higher likelihood of an outbreak,” Wolf said in a statement Friday. “If we see an outbreak occur in one of the communities that has been moved to yellow, we will need to take swift action, and revert to the red category until the new case count falls again. So, Pennsylvanians living in a county that has been moved to the yellow category should continue to strongly consider the impact of their actions.”
Centre County Commissioner Michael Pipe said in a tweet earlier this week that social distancing methods have been effective in flattening the curve in the county, but said reopening should be a process “not as flipping a switch but as turning up a dial.”
Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine said although the 24 counties were chosen based on their current testing and contact tracing capabilities, the state is looking to expand those efforts significantly.
“We're looking to expand testing in those areas, so that we can test actually 2% of the population in every region per month, which would lead to over 250,000 people being tested each month,” she said. But the state is not planning to test asymptomatic individuals at this time.
Wolf said the state is considering moving additional counties in the southwest and southcentral regions to the “yellow” phase, but some concerns remain. He did not specify what those were.
As of Friday, the Department of Health reports 46,971 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, and among them, 2,354 have died.
Since Governor Wolf announced a statewide shutdown in March and ordered all non-life sustaining businesses to close their physical locations, unemployment has soared with more than 1.6 million new claims filed.
Wolf on April 9 ordered all K-12 schools to remain closed for the rest of the academic year, forcing teachers, students and parents to adapt and leaving some in limbo where online learning may be inaccessible.
Even as some businesses may be allowed to reopen under the state’s new phased plan, employers may have a hard time getting their employees back to work, due to safety and finance concerns. Many small businesses are still waiting for federal and state assistance to arrive, as those programs saw overwhelming numbers of applications, resulting in reports of systems crashing across the country.
Starting today, outdoor recreational venues and activities like golf courses, marinas, privately owned campgrounds and guided fishing trips are allowed to reopen while following safety guidelines. Construction is also resuming Friday.
The Wolf administration faced some pushback over its mitigation plans, with many business owners questioning whether the business shutdown waiver program was done fairly.
On Thursday, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene Depasquale announced his office will conduct an audit into that program, although there’s no clear timeline for when that will happen.