With coronavirus case numbers declining and pressures building to resume the business of life, public officials in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey reiterated on Wednesday, with comments and official pronouncements, that the crisis is far from over and that they were not about to fast-forward their reopening plans.
“We’re still in a public health emergency,” said Gov. Phil Murphy, who extended his emergency declaration, which was due to expire Wednesday, for 30 days. And on a November-like day that likely didn’t evoke beach thoughts, he was mum on Cape May County’s proposal for raising the curtain on its summer season.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said he would not be swayed by planned protests against the closings, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, who announced a major contact-tracing initiative, went so far as to say that if employees don’t feel safe, they should not go to work.
Pennsylvania reported 94 additional coronavirus-related deaths Wednesday, raising the state total to 3,106, 803 of those in Philadelphia. New Jersey added 308, upping its toll to 8,549, the majority of those in the New York City area.
While the case and fatality figures continue to plateau, the totals from elder-care facilities have been especially worrisome. They have accounted for 60% of New Jersey’s coronavirus deaths, and more than half of Philadelphia’s.
Murphy said he will appoint a team of national experts to review the state’s elder-care centers and to make recommendations on what changes need to be made.
Murphy also extended his emergency declaration, which gives him broad powers to manage the crisis, a decision that did not sit well with Republican State Sen. Michael Testa, who represents Cape May County. “Shore communities need to open,” he said. Local officials were hoping for a gradual reopening of towns and beaches by June 1.
Murphy characterized the extension as more procedural than ominous.
“I want to make it absolutely clear that this action does not mean that we are seeing anything in the data which would pause our path forward,” Murphy said. “It should not be interpreted by anyone to mean we are going to be tightening any of the restrictions currently in place.”
In Pennsylvania, where 24 northern counties are due to enter a first phase of reopening on Friday, Wolf announced that he would create a civilian task force to escalate the state’s contact-tracing efforts, which would be crucial for public safety and economic recovery.
For more than a century, contact tracing has been invaluable, enabling epidemiologists to interrupt the chains of transmission. With each new infection, the aim of contact tracing is to identify that person’s contacts and advise them to isolate for two weeks.
The public’s precautionary behavior continues to pay dividends, said Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley.
“We are clearly moving in the right direction," he said. "Our actions are very much slowing the spread of this virus. Our actions are very much saving lives.”
Some Philadelphia business owners and others argue that it is time for the city to move in the direction of reopening. Protesters plan to gather at City Hall on Friday, with multiple groups planning rallies for the same time.
In addition to small-business owners, protesters will include workers who are tired of waiting for their unemployment checks. They want Kenney to set a reopening timetable, although that decision would be made at the state level, and the Philadelphia region likely would be the last in the state to have restrictions lifted.
Kenney said that rather than the demonstrators, he would be paying attention to the “medical experts” who will “tell us that it’s time to open. We are not going to sacrifice people’s lives.”
Wolf raised the issue of the risk to workers. He said that at this point, the state was not in a position to enforce workplace protections for essential employees.
He strongly suggested that employees refuse to go to work if they don’t feel safe.
“In the end, they have the ultimate sanction, which is just to say, ‘Well, then, I’m not coming to work’,” Wolf told reporters. “And, as a former employer, I know that would be the most powerful thing that any worker can do.”
On Wednesday he issued an executive order that provides a liability shield to individual medical practitioners for providing care during the pandemic. The order, however, does not prevent lawsuits against operators of hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities.
Meanwhile, the virus continued to extract its staggering economic toll. Uber and Airbnb are among the latest to announce large-scale layoffs. Airbnb, the vacation-rental company, is slashing its staff by 25%, laying off 1,900 of its employees. It projects its revenues will be less than half it the $4.8 billion of 2019.
And in Montgomery County at least, the virus has taken a toll on a sacrosanct tradition.
Instead of Memorial Day, American flags will be placed at veterans’ gravesites and other locations on July Fourth, County Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh announced. The county has ordered thousands of flags for organizations like VFW groups and scout troops. Arkoosh said that July should present "less risk to the volunteers and to our community.”
She said the courthouse in Norristown will be illuminated with red, white, and blue lights on Memorial Day weekend.
In what might be viewed as a hopeful sign, commuters on the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross, and Commodore Barry Bridges can soon start paying again with cash.
Toll collectors will take cash payments on the Delaware River Port Authority’s four bridges beginning at 6 a.m. Monday for the first time since mid-March.
Staff be will wearing facial coverings and using protective shields. Drivers are encouraged to wear facial coverings as well.