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 is moving Philadelphia, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lehigh, Northampton and Montgomery 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. Wolf said that while all businesses will be able to reopen — including restaurants and bars — many will have reduced capacity. People will still be asked to wear masks in public and observe social distancing, Wolf said, and concerts, sporting events and other large gatherings “will continue to be restricted.”
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