Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday he is easing some pandemic restrictions in Philadelphia and the heavily populated suburbs on June 5, while lifting them 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.
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.
Wolf and his health secretary said the closely watched metric is no longer as important, citing dropping numbers of new virus infections and hospitalizations and increased testing capacity.
“There has been a single-minded focus on keeping people safe. That was true when we started this whole process, it's true today. That has not changed and it won’t change,” Wolf said in a video news conference.
With the shutdown about to enter its third month, sustained Republican pressure to lift more restrictions more quickly had begun to pick up support from local Democratic officials and lawmakers. Small business owners struggling to keep afloat have also clamored for relief, with a few of them reopening in defiance of the governor's shutdown orders.
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 announced he is moving Philadelphia, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lehigh, Northampton and Montgomery counties 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.
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 say they are working on specific guidelines for counties in the green phase.
In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania on Friday:
The Pennsylvania Department of Health says people who have tested positive for coronavirus antibodies — and who also had symptoms of COVID-19 or a high-risk exposure to the virus — are being added to the state’s running tally of infections.
Unlike tests for active infections, antibody tests are blood tests that can detect whether someone was infected at some point in the past. Positive antibody tests represent 481 cases, or less than 1 percent, of the state’s overall tally of more than 66,000 infections, according to the health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine.
Pennsylvania splits its virus tally into cases that are confirmed by virus testing and probable cases. Positive antibody tests are considered probable cases. Health authorities say they do not count probable cases for the purpose of deciding when a county is ready to reopen.
“What's very important to note is we only use the count of confirmed cases when we're looking at any metrics in terms of counties going from red to yellow, or yellow to green, or any other transition,” Levine said.
SOME EVICTIONS ALLOWED
The Wolf administration is loosening its ban on foreclosures and evictions.
A tenant who damages property, breaks the law or breaches the lease in some other way can now be evicted under a modified executive order issued by Wolf on Friday.
The temporary ban still applies to evictions and foreclosures for nonpayment or because a tenant has overstayed a lease. The moratorium is scheduled to last until July 10.
The Wolf administration has been fighting legal action by landlords who say the governor overstepped his authority by imposing a moratorium on evictions. His spokeswoman, Lyndsay Kensinger, said the decision to amend the executive order was considered before the litigation was filed “in consideration of feedback from stakeholders.”
NURSING HOME FUNDING
The federal government on Friday began distributing $238 million in emergency aid to Pennsylvania nursing homes that have been hit especially hard by the virus.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said it is making payments to 587 nursing homes. Each nursing home will get a fixed payment of $50,000, plus $2,500 per bed. The money can be used to pay staff, boost testing capacity, acquire protective equipment and for other expenses associated with the pandemic.
Nursing homes have seen declining patient populations and increased costs as they struggle to contain the virus. Long-term care residents account for about two-thirds of the statewide death toll of nearly 5,000, a higher proportion than in most other states.
MASS TESTING SITE TO CLOSE
A drive-through coronavirus testing site in northeastern Pennsylvania will close next week, the Wolf administration announced Friday.
The site at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, opened April 20 and tested more than 2,000 people. Luzerne County has been among the state’s hot spots for the new virus, though its infection numbers have been trending down.
The public testing site will continue to offer testing through May 29.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health on Friday reported 115 additional deaths linked to COVID-19, raising the statewide total to 4,984.
State health officials also reported that 866 more people have tested positive for the new coronavirus. The state has recorded fewer than 1,000 new cases for 12 consecutive days.
Since early March, infections have been confirmed in more than 66,000 people in Pennsylvania. For the first time, health officials reported Friday that 57% of the people who have tested positive for the virus are considered to be fully recovered.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher than the state’s confirmed case count because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.