What’s Open As Southwest PA Enters The ‘Yellow’ Phase? Your Reopening Questions Answered

May 15, 2020

Friday, May 15 marks most of southwestern Pennsylvania's transition from the most restrictive "red" phase of the state's shutdown to the "yellow" phase of reopening. The "yellow" phase allows more businesses to open up, but many restrictions are still in effect.

To help clear up confusion, 90.5 WESA asked listeners for their questions about reopening. Here are answers to some of those questions. 

Editor's note: this post may be updated as more information becomes available.

1. Will daycares be open? And how will they implement social distancing/safety procedures?

Child care centers will be able to open under the “yellow” phase and are asked to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. It calls for fewer students in a classroom, lower child-to-teacher ratios and requiring children 2 years and older to wear masks. The Department of Human Services cannot enforce the guidance, but leaders say they have asked the governor’s office to grant the department that authority. The state has not changed child care regulations.

About 1,500 centers were operating throughout the state with waivers before any county moved into the “yellow” phase. Those centers received waivers to care for children of essential workers. Some child care providers say they’re looking at what those centers have learned to help centers reopening.

2. What is the justification for reopening?

For a county or region to move into the “yellow” phase requires less than 50 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the course of 14 days.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Allegheny County has a population of 1.2 million. Under these guidelines, Allegheny County could see up to 600 new cases per two week period and still meet the requirements needed to move into the “yellow phase.” Over the last two weeks, Allegheny County has had 262 new cases. By that measure, Allegheny County is below the threshold, which Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald pointed to as justification for moving into the “yellow” phase while talking to reporters earlier this week.

He also suggested that remaining quarantined in the “red” phase for a longer period of time could be detrimental in a number of ways.

“At the other end of the health spectrum is people being kept at home, that also has a health effect on folks as well,” he said. “So there is that balance and there's also the economic livelihood that so many people have been suffering throughout this.”

He added that “we’re going to learn a lot over the next couple of weeks” and that if COVID-19 cases spike, more restrictions will be put back into place.

3. Is it OK to socialize? And under what circumstances? 

House parties are definitely out. In the "yellow" phase, gatherings of more than 25 people are prohibited.

Earlier this week, Duquesne University epidemiologist David Dausey told WESA that if and when he does start to socialize, “It will likely be outside. It will likely have seats that are spaced appropriately apart.”

Dr. Debra Bogen, that head of Allegheny County’s health department, made a similar suggestion at a press conference last week. 

"You can go sit in a park 10 feet apart and talk to your friends. Wear masks. Don’t be physically close to one another. Don’t pass things back and forth," she said. "But there’s no problem if you can maintain that distance.”

As for visiting elderly or high-risk loved ones, Dausey said  “the common-sense thing to do at this point is for high risk people to take greater precautions than people who are at lower risk.”

Many nursing homes and personal care facilities banned visitors, even before the state ordered them to do so, because the risk posed by the novel coronavirus is particularly severe to elderly and medical high-risk individuals. However, on Mother’s Day, some UPMC senior facilities arranged parking lot meetings so that residents and families could visit from a distance, outdoors.

Even though most of southwest Pennsylvania has transitioned from "red" to "yellow," community spread of the virus persists. The coronavirus has not disappeared just because the stay-at-home order has lifted. Close contact with anyone, be they old or young, extremely health or immunocompromised, poses risk of infection.  

4. Will liquor stores be open?

Yes, some liquor stores will be open for in-store shopping. This week, the state Liquor Control Board released a full list of 232 stores that will be open – that includes more than 60 stores in Allegheny County. You can find the list here.

No more than 25 people be allowed in each store at a time and the first hour will be reserved for those at a high risk of contracting COVID-19. These stores will also still continue offering curbside pickup.

5. Will libraries be open?

In short, no. Libraries will not be open to the public starting Friday. The proposed Framework for Reopening Libraries remains under review by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Even once approved, it will be some time before libraries can return to “normal” function.

However, library staff can resume working in-person Friday. They are working to establish a contactless pickup system for people to borrow materials. The WiFi at branches also remains on so people can park or stand nearby to get online, and anyone can call the library for job help, social service referrals, or materials. Find more information here.

6. Which businesses will be open?

Some retail businesses in southwestern Pennsylvania previously closed will be allowed to reopen under the "yellow" phase. Though in-person retail will be permitted, curbside and delivery is preferable, according to Gov. Wolf’s reopening plan. Restaurants will still be required to offer curbside and delivery only.

These businesses may reopen, conduct in-person operations or loosen some restrictions in Allegheny County this weekend:

  • Some liquor stores (listed here);
  • Clothing, appliance, garden center and sporting goods stores;
  • Pet stores (which in the red phase were only permitted to provide veterinary services and boarding for pets and sell supplies);
  • Car dealerships;
  • Law offices, bail bondsmen and notary and title offices;
  • Bicycle sale and repair shops;
  • Cell phone stores (which in the "red" phase were only permitted to offer repairs)
  • Realty and apartment leasing offices (though they may only conduct in-person operations for properties within the "yellow" phase county).

For a complete breakdown of businesses permitted by the state to reopen under the “yellow" phase, see Gov. Wolf’s frequently asked questions page.

All businesses that reopen under this phase are to meet requirements described on the Governor’s website. Requirements include adherence to the Centers for Disease Control and Department of Health guidelines. Those guidelines include:

  • Cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces and maintaining social distancing guidelines;
  • Establishing a plan of action in case the business is exposed to a probable or confirmed case of COVID-19;
  • Sending home employees with a recorded temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher;
  • Encouraging employees with symptoms to stay home; and
  • Implementing liberal paid time off for those employees.

Some businesses will be required to remain closed under the "yellow" phase. Those businesses are categorized as:

  • Indoor recreation, health and wellness facilities and personal care services;
  • All entertainment;
  • Indoor malls; and
  • Restaurants and bars (except for pickup and delivery).

Closed businesses include hair and nail salons, tattoo shops, movie theaters, gyms and casinos, indoor golfing facilities, bowling alleys museums, zoos and botanical gardens.

Indoor malls will remain closed. Only businesses with external entrances may open and are subjected to the business guidance.

7. Is Allegheny County testing enough people to ensure that we’re ready to go to "yellow"? Are we confident the number of total positives is really this low?

Allegheny County is testing fewer people than envisioned by state guidelines – which themselves set modest goals compared to other approaches. But other metrics, and some local disease experts, suggest the county is testing adequately.

On a good day, Allegheny County tests between 400 and 500 people. That’s below the state’s goal of testing 2 percent of an area’s population each month – a bit more than 800 tests a day for Allegheny’s population of 1.2 million people.

Allegheny is even further behind more ambitious proposals, like a Harvard University approach that envisions testing at least 2 percent of the population daily. That would be more than 24,000 county residents a day.

Still, access to testing has been expanding, including in low-income areas. And infectious-disease expert Amesh Adalja says he is “fairly confident that Allegheny County is testing enough people and is in good shape going into yellow.” Adalja is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a Pittsburgh-based infectious disease and critical care physician. He says part of the reason he’s upbeat comes from making rounds in local hospitals.

“I can tell you that we never hit any sort of crisis, and the last several times I’ve rounded, it’s seldom I am consulted on novel coronavirus cases,” he said.

Another reason for Adalja’s optimism is “percent positivity,” the number of tests that come positive for the virus. If a lot of tests come back positive, it means there is a lot of coronavirus out there – many cases of which you probably aren’t detecting. But in Allegheny County, the percentage of positive tests has been in the mid-single digits – well below the 10 percent threshold that many experts say you want to stay beneath.

Adalja said the 10 percent threshold is itself arbitrary, but in any case, “The fact that the number of tests being done is stable, the hospitals aren’t in crisis, and the percent positivity – it all says we’re in good condition.”

So does the fact that hospital giant UPMC has tested some 2,000 patients needing medical procedures, including those who showed no symptoms – and found only 4 who tested positive.

Of course, part of what makes the coronavirus so threatening is that it is possible to have, and transmit, it without showing symptoms. And for much of the past few months, when the virus held sway, testing was inadequate. But Adalja notes that the Infectious Disease Society of America, doesn’t currently recommend general testing of asymptomatic people.  And when other metrics look good, Adalja said, “We shouldn’t test just to test.”

90.5 WESA reporters Kiley Koscinski, Sarah Schneider, Sarah Boden, Sarah Kovash, Liz Reid, Chris Potter and Margaret J. Krauss contributed to this report.