York City mayor rescinds all of his COVID-19-related restrictions

Protesters march through the streets of York yelling "no justice, no peace. Prosecute the police," one week after George Floyd died after being restrained by a Minnesota police officer, Monday, June 1, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich is rescinding the emergency orders he put in place to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The mayor announced at Wednesday's City Council meeting that all policies established under executive orders, except for personnel changes to aid with the pandemic, will end Friday in anticipation that the city will soon enter the green phase of reopening.

“I am speculating based on recent trends,” Helfrich said, adding he believes that regions will enter the green phase in the same order they transitioned from red to yellow. 

Beginning Friday, park equipment, playgrounds, basketball courts and skate parks will  be open.

City restrictions on gatherings of 10 or more people also will be rescinded, as will requirements for businesses to keep occupancy to 50% of their fire code capacity.

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Helfrich  said he believes York is next in line to go green because of the declining single-day increases, one of Gov.  Tom Wolf's several metrics for reopening.

York County has had an average of about 32 new cases per 100,000 over the past two weeks, well below the 50-case threshold set by Wolf's administration.

Thursday also marked the lowest single-day increase since late March, with only one new case.

However, other counties in the region would also need to meet Wolf's criteria, which  include hospital capacity and adequate testing.

Wolf on Thursday afternoon amended his phase order to allow an additional 16 counties to move into the green phase on Friday, bringing the total to 34. York was not included.

The governor's administration declined to comment on whether York is slated to be next in line to enter the green phase of reopening.

Officials also declined to comment when asked if Wolf would make an announcement on Friday about additional counties entering the phase, as he has over the past month.

The green phase would mark a notable decrease in restrictions, lifting aggressive mitigation efforts and allowing all businesses to reopen — although most businesses would be required to limit occupancy to 75%

Bars, restaurants, entertainment facilities, indoor recreational facilities and personal care services would have to operate at 50% occupancy.

Residents would still be advised to abide by guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as wearing masks and social distancing. Gatherings of 250 or more would also be prohibited.

The state would then adjust orders and restrictions as necessary, the plan states.

Moving into the green phase would undoubtedly provide economic relief to businesses and municipalities, as a lack of tax revenue has left officials desperate for cash and questioning their budgets.

The city has already has lost millions of dollars in tax revenues because of the shutdown order, Helfrich has said.

And the York County Economic Alliance, in conjunction with a Pittsburgh-based economist, has estimated that up to 30% of small businesses in the county will never reopen.

York County's unemployment rate reached 14.9% in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But it's unclear how quickly, and how much, local economies will bounce back.

“I don’t think we’re going to move rapidly back to a 100% functioning economy,” Helfrich said. “We have to try to find a way to balance our economic needs and our needs to be social creatures with the threat of this still fairly mysterious virus.”

YCEA Kevin Schreiber agreed that several factors will play a key role in how the economy is able to recover.

But what's considered "normal" after the pandemic won't be the same as before, he said.

"We’re all different as a result of this crisis,” he said. “It will reshape our landscape slightly. We as a population have changed. Consumer spending will likely change. I think COVID has changed this world, and that new version of normal is post-COVID.”

As of April 30, the YCEA and its Pittsburgh-based economist reported that, even when restrictions are lifted, 70% of people would not be comfortable in large gatherings.

In addition, 52% would not be comfortable eating in restaurants, and 69% would not be comfortable going to bars, foreshadowing a slow recovery.

Wolf had already announced he would relax some restrictions this week. 

On Wednesday, Wolf said his stay-at-home order for all counties would expire by the end of the day Thursday. Though he also extended his disaster declaration for an additional 60 days.

In York County, state orders still will be in effect, meaning under the county's yellow phase, gatherings would be limited to 25 people, and social distancing must be observed.

Helfrich on Wednesday noted that his decision may be questioned, as he himself has participated in protests over the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd over the past week.

Wolf has also come under fire for participating in a recent protest in Harrisburg.

Floyd last week died after a Minneapolis Police Officer knelt on his neck to restrain him for several minutes. Floyd could be heard saying "I can't breathe" in video taken by a bystander.

"It does not go unnoticed that I may look a little bit — or a lot — like a hypocrite to some people right now by attending rallies of 500 people but still enforcing the governor’s orders to try and prevent the spread of coronavirus," Helfrich said.

As of Thursday at noon, there were 1,038 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in York County and 28 deaths linked to the virus.

York City accounts for 360 of those cases and five deaths.