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Shutdown To Lift Around Much Of Western Pennsylvania

Gene J. Puskar
A father and son ride their bikes past a building on the Northside of Pittsburgh that sports a sign of encouragement for the efforts being made to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Wednesday, April 15, 2020.

Thirteen more western counties, comprising nearly 2.7 million residents and much of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, can shed Gov. Tom Wolf's most restrictive pandemic orders on movement and businesses next week, joining much of northern Pennsylvania that began emerging Friday.

*This story was updated at 2:57 p.m.

The counties announced Friday by Wolf are Allegheny, Armstrong, Bedford, Blair, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Fulton, Greene, Indiana, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland.

The only western county held back, Beaver County, is home to perhaps the state's worst nursing home outbreak, where dozens have died and a congressman is calling for an investigation.

Otherwise, the area of approximately 10,000 square miles (15,000 square kilometers), can undertake a limited reopening next Friday.

When it does, it will join people in 24 counties across a swath of primarily rural northern Pennsylvania who are the first to have pandemic restrictions eased under Wolf’s reopening plan, including Erie, Lewisburg, Williamsport and State College.

They began opening stores Friday that had been shut down since March under Wolf's orders, while residents began leaving their homes unfettered by a just-expired stay-at-home order that had been in place since April 1.

The 24 counties — lightly impacted by a pandemic that has killed more than 3,600 people and infected more than 54,000 statewide — are home to 1.5 million of Pennsylvania’s 12.8 million residents, and are nearly one-half of its geographical area at about 18,000 square miles (27,000 square kilometers).

Several of the shops along Lewisburg’s quaint Market Street retail strip reopened Friday for the first day of Union County’s elevation to “yellow,” but most remained shuttered.

The eight-week closure of Retrah and Dwellings, the pair of boutiques owned by Connie Harter, cost her more than $50,000, she said.

"I put all my personal money in to pay all my bills, so now I have to earn all that back,” Harter said, after a few customers had trickled in early Friday. “The bills kept coming and the creditors kept calling.”

Down the street, Kelli Eichenlaub was getting into her car after popping into newly open Jordanna Adams, a clothing store, to buy facemasks.

“They put it on their Facebook page,” Eichenlaub said. “I said, ‘save me two, I’ll be down.’”

Lucie Knauer was calling customers to pick up repair work at her shop, Antiques at 221.

“I think it’ll take awhile” for things to get back to normal,” Knauer said. “I think a lot of people are feeling cautious.”

At Gerlach's Garden & Floral in suburban Erie, the garden store and flower shop opened its doors Friday to people seeking seeds, seedlings, flowers, shrubs and more. Social-distancing markers were on the floor, plexiglass was by the register, employees were wearing masks and a huge chunk of its big selling season is past.

“Those weeks we’ve missed, those are gone, we can’t get them back, we cant make them up,” said Adam Gerlach, one of the owners. “So we’re looking to the future, looking to see what we can capitalize on a little bit more these next couple weeks.”

It helps that the flower shop is open in time for Mother's Day on Sunday — missing Easter was a devastating hit — but Gerlach estimates that the business has lost at least 20% of its revenue for the year.

That said, people were coming into the store, and it felt good to open up and see customers, Gerlach said.

“Letting people in definitely feels good, for people to come in and do their shopping,” Gerlach said. “So far, everyone I talked to is happy to be out and be able to go get stuff.”

Most of Pennsylvania, including the heavily populated Philadelphia area and hard-hit eastern Pennsylvania, remains under Wolf's strictest shutdown orders, called the “red” designation, with no timeline to emerge. There, Wolf's stay-at-home orders extend until June 4.

Wolf has granted the "yellow" phase to the two dozen counties that emerged from lockdown Friday: 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.

They will be joined by 13 more counties next Friday, under Wolf’s plan.

While he said more counties could move to the yellow phase soon, he warned Friday that his reopening plan is not “a one-way route” and that restrictions can be reimposed if his administration feels that danger is surfacing.

"Every contact between two people is a new link in the chain of potential transmission and if the new case count begins to climb in one area, restrictions will need to be imposed to prevent local medical facilities from becoming overwhelmed,” Wolf told a video news conference.

Along with retailers and other kinds of businesses that can reopen, gatherings of up to 25 people are now allowed. But 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.

Bars and restaurants may offer only delivery or takeout service, although a major trade association is urging Wolf to begin allowing them to add seated dine-in service under the yellow phase.

Republicans and some business owners have complained that Wolf is moving too slowly to reopen Pennsylvania’s economy. More than 1.9 million people, including self-employed and gig workers, have filed for unemployment since mid-March.