BREAKING: Virus restrictions to be eased in 24 northern Pa. counties
HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf was preparing to announce Friday that 24 counties in rural northern Pennsylvania will see some relief from his strictest orders for residents to stay at home and businesses to close as part of a strategy to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
All of the counties that are moving from “red” to “yellow” in Wolf’s color-coded reopening plan are in the northwest and north-central regions of Pennsylvania, which have seen far fewer virus infections and deaths than the rest of the state.
The changes are to take effect next Friday, May 8. Stay-at-home orders will be lifted and retail shops can start to reopen, though other restrictions will remain in place.
The counties to be included in Wolf’s announcement Friday 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.
The only county in that group to be left off the list was Columbia, which is still struggling with a relatively high number of infections.
The plan was obtained by The Associated Press ahead of Wolf’s announcement.
Wolf’s administration also could release details Friday about its strategy for mass testing — although his health secretary has said it would be “aspirational” because many testing materials remain in short supply — and its contact tracing plan to contain the virus’s spread.
Wolf has said that shutdown measures he ordered starting in March have succeeded in heading off the potential that hospitals would be overwhelmed with patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
An analysis by The Associated Press shows that only 27 of the state’s 67 counties reported too many new virus cases over the past two weeks to qualify for a gradual easing of restrictions under Wolf’s shutdown plan. But Wolf has grouped the state’s counties into six geographic regions, and health officials are also looking at regional case counts as they decide which counties can qualify for an easing of pandemic restrictions. The analysis shows that three of the six regions still have too many cases to qualify.
Health officials also say the incidence of new cases isn’t the only metric they’re looking at.
Expanded virus testing, sufficient hospital capacity and the ability to quickly identify and contain flareups through what’s known as contact tracing must also be in place. The state Department of Health will also use a new modeling tool by Carnegie Mellon University to help officials decide when a region is ready to reopen.
The coronavirus has infected more than 45,000 Pennsylvania residents and killed nearly 2,300, according to the latest Health Department statistics, while the state’s efforts to contain the virus have caused economic devastation, throwing nearly 1.7 million Pennsylvania residents out of work since mid-March.
The step-by-step relaxation of state shutdown orders means some counties or regions move from a “red” designation to a “yellow” designation.
Under the yellow designation, gatherings of up to 25 people will be allowed. Currently, the statewide red designation bans all gatherings or outside trips that are not related to health, safety or going to work at an essential job.
Gyms, casinos, theaters and other indoor recreational, wellness and entertainment venues will stay closed. Restaurants and bars will still be limited to carry-out or delivery. Child care is open, although businesses must follow federal and state guidance for safety, social distancing and cleaning.
Schools statewide remain closed for the rest of the academic year, and visitation restrictions on prisons and nursing homes remain in place. Wolf’s administration will continue to recommend that people wear masks in public, and require businesses and commercial buildings that serve the public deny entry to customers not wearing masks.
There is no word on when an area could move to a “green” designation, with all pandemic restrictions lifted aside from any federal or state health guidelines that remain in effect.
Meanwhile, Wolf has begun loosening some restrictions on business sectors. On Friday, golf courses, marinas, guided fishing trips and privately owned campgrounds statewide can reopen, and construction can restart.