Ten weeks after the first cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in Pennsylvania, the western part of the state came out of full lockdown on Friday, and officials urged the southeastern region to stay the course — even amid warm weather — as signs pointed to strengthening progress.
Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday announced 12 more counties that can enter the state’s first or “yellow” phase of recovery on May 22, joining the 37 already there. While the southeastern region is not among those cleared, the new batch of counties, which includes York, inched closer to Philadelphia’s western suburbs.
The counties in Southeastern Pennsylvania still have case counts above the commonwealth’s threshold of about 50 new cases per 100,000 people over 14 days, one of the benchmarks being used by state officials to determine what areas can start reopening.
However, case counts continue on a downswing in both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, officials said Friday.
Philadelphia’s decline in new cases of COVID-19 “seems to be accelerating,” Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Friday, adding that he still could not predict when the city will be able to reopen.
Farley announced 256 new cases of the coronavirus Friday and noted that “it’s still an awful lot of cases.” He has said the city would need to have about 55 cases a day for a two-week period in order to ease restrictions.
“This is all a data game,” Mayor Jim Kenney said. “We’re not going to be caught up in this open-up hysteria that everyone in the country is dealing with.”
Protesters calling for the state to reopen businesses demonstrated Friday in Harrisburg, the second protest against the governor’s mitigation measures to take place in the state capital.
Wolf cleared Adams, Beaver, Carbon, Columbia, Cumberland, Juniata, Mifflin, Perry, Susquehanna, Wayne, Wyoming, and York Counties to be the next group entering the yellow phase of reopening. They join 13 counties where stay-at-home orders lifted Friday and 24 others that entered the stage last week.
In New Jersey, new hospitalizations were down more than 40% in the last two weeks and almost 70% since the state’s peak, Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday.
“This data relates directly to the slowing spread of COVID-19 that you all out there have made possible by sticking to social distancing and doing all the other seemingly small things, like washing your hands with soap or wearing a face covering when you are out, that you have made part of your daily routines,” Murphy said.
As New Jersey cleared the way for elective surgeries to resume and said its July 7 primary would be “primarily” vote-by-mail, with mail-in ballots or ballot applications going to registered voters, Delaware said shopping malls, retail stores, casinos, barber shops, gyms, and other businesses can reopen June 1 under strict guidelines, along with beaches.
Extra Delaware state troopers will be out next weekend to stop out-of-state travelers who may be headed to beaches, Gov. John Carney said Friday. Nonresidents are only allowed to be in the state for an essential reason and must have been there for at least 14 days to use the beaches.
In the Philadelphia region, one thing was set to return to normal Monday: SEPTA will resume regular schedules for buses and trolleys and on the Market-Frankford, Broad Street, and Norristown High Speed Lines in order to reduce crowding. City residents are still asked to stay home if they do not have an essential reason to travel.
Health Secretary Rachel Levine declined to comment Friday on when Southeastern Pennsylvania might move to the yellow phase. The region’s stay-at-home order is in place at least to June 4.
“We’ve of course had discussions with county health departments in the southeast,” she said, “and we will be making decisions when they’re ready.”
Montgomery County projected that if social distancing ended now, the county’s positive test rate would jump from 13% to 33% within about five days. If strict social distancing continues, the positive test rate is projected to decrease to about 8.3% within a week, County Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh said.
“Because of your actions, we are starting to meaningfully reduce the number of new cases,” she said. “But we still have a lot of virus in our midst, and because of that, our numbers could quickly change.”
Delaware County surpassed Philadelphia in the per capita rate of residents with the coronavirus, giving it the highest rate of the Southeastern Pennsylvania counties, according to data released Friday.
Over the past 14 days, Delaware County had on average 275 cases for each 100,000 residents, slightly above Philadelphia’s 266 and significantly higher than the suburban counties surrounding it. It was not immediately clear what accounted for that.
And Chester County, which data indicate is the closest in the area to reaching the state’s case-count benchmark with about 120 cases per 100,000 people over the last 14 days, according to an Inquirer analysis, began working to prepare businesses for eventual reopening, the county commissioners said Friday.
With a task force to field questions and requests from businesses and create a tool kit to aid business owners, “as soon as the date is identified, Chester County employers will be ready to safely move into the yellow phase of business practices,” said County Commissioner Michelle Kichline.
In the yellow phase, the stay-at-home order is lifted, and people can gather in groups of 25 or fewer. Businesses that can’t operate remotely may call employees back to work if they follow safety guidelines, child-care facilities can open following guidance, and retail stores can operate at limited capacity. Restaurants remain restricted to take-out and delivery.
Pennsylvania reported an additional 986 confirmed coronavirus cases on Friday, for a total of 60,622. In all, 4,342 Pennsylvanians have died of the virus.
New Jersey reported 1,297 new cases, bringing the total to 143,905, and 201 deaths for a toll of 10,138.
New Jersey will receive $50 million in federal CARES Act funding to provide grants to support small businesses impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, Murphy said Friday.
Federal officials are also sending a “big slug of money” to NJ Transit, President Donald Trump confirmed on a call with Murphy, the governor said, not specifying the amount.
The New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway will resume cash collection at toll booths, officials announced Friday. Drivers must pay with cash or E-ZPass starting Tuesday morning.
Officials reminded residents to practice social distancing and isolation even while enjoying spring weather. Wolf said he understands the growing frustration of cooped-up Pennsylvanians, saying it gets “harder every day” to stay isolated.
"When we first began to take action against the virus in our commonwealth, the virus was ravaging Italy ... We heard tragic story after tragic story,” Wolf said, later adding, “The way we did it here in Pennsylvania, I think, has been less bad than the alternative. I think that is what we always have to keep in mind.”
Staff writers Laura McCrystal, Vinny Vella, Rob Tornoe, and Ellie Rushing contributed to this article.