Gov. Tom Wolf said Wednesday that officials are working to get as many Pennsylvanians as possible back to work as the coronavirus pandemic continues, including by increasing diagnostic testing capacity across the commonwealth and putting into place a contact tracing program — but said he was not sure the economy can fully return to normal until there is a “foolproof” vaccine for the deadly virus.
Ultimately, he said on a call with reporters, “what it’s going to take for everybody to feel safe going to a Penn State game or a basketball game is that they have some confidence that they’re not going to get sick by being in close contact with somebody else.”
Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said the city should “focus less on when we reopen and really start thinking about how we reopen" and said every resident should prepare by getting a face mask.
“Wearing a mask is going to have to become normal, expected behavior,” he said Wednesday. "Going into a store without wearing a mask is like it is now going into a store without wearing a shirt — it’s just something that people don’t do.”
The city counted 103 coronavirus-related deaths between Tuesday and Wednesday, raising the city’s death toll to 1,152. Not all of the newly counted deaths occurred in the last 24 hours; many were found as the city reconciled lists of residents with the virus with a new batch of death certificates, Farley said.
But the situation in Philadelphia is still improving, Farley said.
“That daily number [of new cases] is still falling overall, so we’re clearly making progress,” he said.
Meanwhile, a group of Republican legislators from Bucks County — where the county commissioners previously asked the Department of Health to move them to the first, or yellow, phase of reopening — continued sparring with Wolf over his plan to end shutdown restrictions.
They introduced a bill that proposed to allow individual counties to decide when to reopen. Rep. Frank Farry (R., Langhorne) said local officials should be empowered to “supersede the state’s irrational and inconsistent decisions.”
Pennsylvania reported 746 newly confirmed coronavirus cases Wednesday, bringing the total to 64,412, and 143 more deaths, for a total of 4,767.
In New Jersey, officials reported 1,670 newly confirmed cases, for a total of 150,399 residents who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Gov. Phil Murphy reported 168 more deaths, bringing the state’s death toll to 10,747.
The numbers of residents hospitalized, in intensive care, and/or on ventilators were all down by more than 50% since the pandemic’s peak in mid-April, Murphy said, but health officials were concerned by a small rise in new hospitalizations over the last four days.
“New hospitalizations just talk to the evidence of ongoing spread in our communities,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said.
Montgomery County, too, reported a slight increase in hospital admissions this week, and officials said the positivity rate has varied from below 10% to as high as 19% in recent days — "a reminder that we remain in a situation where there is still very real risk of virus transmission in our community,” Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh said.
Pennsylvania on Wednesday issued safety guidance for casinos, which will be able to reopen when their counties enter the green phase, and said it would distribute $51 million in federal coronavirus funding to nearly 7,000 child-care centers across the commonwealth. Of that money, $11 million will go to Philadelphia, and its collar counties will receive from $1.8 million to $3.6 million each.
Wolf said his administration will say in “the next few days” whether or how professional sports can resume operating. The state is working with NASCAR, the NFL, the NHL, the NBA, and amateur sports groups to figure out the safest way forward, Wolf said.
“This is the kind of thing we’re trying to do ... ,” he said, “balancing life as we would like it to be with life as it has to be given the virus that’s out there.”
He also said he planned to sign a bill this week that would allow restaurants in the commonwealth to sell cocktails to go, saying he was “not sure it’s a good idea” but noting the measure had unanimous support in the legislature.
In both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, residents enrolled in the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will soon be able to use their benefits to order groceries online, something not previously possible.
The states were approved by the federal government for a pilot program that will allow residents using SNAP benefits to get groceries delivered, officials announced Wednesday.
"Many people have been purchasing groceries online to facilitate social distancing, but SNAP recipients were not able to do so due to federal restrictions,” Pennsylvania Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said in a statement. “In most cases, SNAP recipients do not have flexibility to use online purchasing for grocery delivery or curbside pickup, potentially putting health and safety at risk during this health crisis.”
In Pennsylvania, the service will likely be available in early June, after the state makes system changes to allow for online SNAP payments, officials said. New Jersey recipients will be able to use their benefits card to order groceries from Amazon beginning May 27 and order from Walmart, ShopRite, and Fresh Grocer beginning May 28.
New Jersey also added drive-through, self-administered coronavirus testing at seven Walmarts across the state, including in Burlington and Mount Laurel.
“More testing creates more data,” Murphy said, “and more data allows us to take more steps forward.”
As Memorial Day weekend neared, Mayor Jim Kenney encouraged residents to continue following social distancing guidelines and to resist the urge to hold barbecues or family gatherings.
“The last thing we want to see at this point," he said, “is a holiday weekend wiping out all the progress.”