Freedom mingled with caution on Friday as the Philadelphia region moved into the “green” phase of reopening, 16 weeks after Pennsylvania’s first confirmed cases of the coronavirus, and following more than three months of lockdown, anxiety, and waiting.
But as people in the suburbs shopped, dined, worked out, and got haircuts, only certain “yellow” phase restrictions were lifted in Philadelphia — and officials ordered mandatory mask-wearing for everyone in the city.
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The city is reconsidering its plans to move into the green phase next week, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Friday. Officials will monitor the virus and determine “what, if anything” previously slated to reopen next Friday can still do so.
Some activities and business operations might get the go-ahead to resume next week, he said, but others, such as indoor dining, might have to wait.
“Cases in the community are no longer decreasing,” Farley said. “I don’t think [new cases] are rising fast, but they do appear to be increasing.”
Masks are now mandatory in Philadelphia in all indoor public places, and are required outdoors wherever people who are not members of the same household are gathered, Farley announced.
In the rest of the state, masks are required inside businesses and are recommended everywhere else.
In recent days, the city has averaged around or above 100 daily new cases, and Friday brought 143. The city had aimed to average 80 new cases per day before moving to green. Officials also noted new spikes in infections among teenagers, which appear to be linked to social gatherings, Farley said.
The city’s positivity rate among people tested for the virus also increased from less than 5% 10 days ago to between 5% and 6%. The city wanted to reach less than 4% before moving to green.
“We are not right now ready to go to the green,” Farley said. “At the same time, we recognize the difficulties of this four-month shutdown — a loss of income, a loss of business. ... So we’re trying to figure out how to balance those risks.”
Still, salons, barbers, spas, zoos, residential pools, and private swim clubs were allowed to resume operations on Friday in the city, as well as in the collar counties. And as Philadelphia proceeded with renewed caution, there was palpable giddiness in some suburban streets.
Amid caution, many said the return to a sense of normality was causing them to grin behind their face masks.
“Today feels wonderful, almost like Christmas,” said Marilyn Whitekettle as she got her hair dried by Carmen Tempesta at Moxie’s Salon in Doylestown. Tempesta’s full day of appointment slots had been booked well in advance, he said.
For Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties, the green phase also meant a long-awaited return to gyms, libraries, museums, indoor malls, casinos, theaters, bars, and restaurants, all at reduced occupancy.
Lebanon County, the last left in the yellow phase, will go green next Friday, Gov. Tom Wolf said.
“We will soon have all of our counties in green,” Wolf said in a Friday statement, calling it a milestone. “But we must remember that the restrictions that remain in the green phase will help us continue to enjoy the freedoms this phase allows for.”
In New Jersey, public school students will receive in-person instruction in the fall at least part-time, the state Education Department said in guidance issued to districts Friday.
School systems will be responsible for determining how to return to the classroom, but their plans must meet minimum guidelines, including social distancing, temperature checks, contact tracing, and mandatory face coverings for school staff and visitors, with masks strongly encouraged for students.
“It is becoming abundantly clear that children need to return to a school environment in some capacity, and we need to do so safely,” Education Commissioner Lamont O. Repollet said.
Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday said the state’s overall rate of transmission of the coronavirus was dropping slightly, and that he was seeing “a good picture overall” in terms of hospitalizations and other metrics.
Burlington, Gloucester, Cape May, and Ocean Counties are among 16 counties in the state where transmission rates have increased in recent weeks, Murphy’s office confirmed Thursday.
The rate of infection was falling in Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware Counties, and was not clearly decreasing or increasing in Bucks, based on data from the last 14 days.
From Harrah’s casino in Chester to the King of Prussia Mall, businesses opened their doors. The manager of the Red Lion Diner in Horsham hung a “Welcome back” sign outside. The staff at Dynamic Image Hair Salon in Havertown flipped the door sign to “Open” for the first time in months. People flocked to outdoor pools at the Newtown Athletic Club, while others filed into the nearby gym to work out on machines and treadmills.
“It’s been tremendous,” said club owner Jim Worthington, who said he was surprised at how many customers returned Friday. “I’ve had people come up to me with tears in their eyes. This is a big part of people’s lives, not just fitness, but the sense of community and mental health it provides.”
Still, people seemed fearful of sitting inside, said Sarah Brautigan, owner of the Havertown cafe Kettle. At Manoa Tavern, employees had seated only one table of customers by noon, said manager Joe Favazza.
In Montgomery County, shoppers strolled through the King of Prussia Mall for the first time in more than three months. Around half the mall’s 400 stores remained shuttered; others had “We’re open!” signs in the windows.
“Since nobody’s here, we’ll walk around,” said Jennifer Michael, of Aston, who was buying hiking shoes with her son. “We want to be safe, but it’s nice to feel normal.”
Philadelphia officials said they have been in frequent contact with leaders of the surrounding counties. Mayor Jim Kenney acknowledged that their reopening may cause residents to shop outside the city, but said he wanted to put health considerations first.
“If we don’t get it right, both the suburbs and us will be going back to yellow at some point,” he said.
The city’s mandatory mask order came hours after the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which is exempt from state requirements as a religious organization, announced that it would no longer require face coverings at Mass. Farley said he hoped the archdiocese would require them, and said religious services are “particularly high risk” for spreading the virus.
The order to wear masks, which will be accompanied by a public promotional campaign, will not be enforced by police or city officials, and it doesn’t apply to children under 8.
“It’s up to us as Philadelphia residents to self-enforce this order,” Farley said. “If it works, we can reduce the spread of the infection. If it doesn’t, we’ll have more cases. It’s as simple as that.”