As protests and civil unrest eclipsed the coronavirus pandemic for a third straight day, health officials warned of relaxed vigilance against a disease that, as of Monday, had killed at least 5,567 in Pennsylvania and 11,698 in New Jersey.
Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania suburbs remained on track to allow more businesses to reopen — albeit carefully — Friday. But in Philadelphia, the continuing protests and ensuing chaos could affect plans to move out of the most restrictive “red” phase to add more business activity in the intermediate “yellow” phase, Mayor Jim Kenney said.
“If you look at all we’re tied up with — pandemic, depression, civil unrest, an election — there’s only so much energy and resources that we have,” Kenney said. “So I’m not saying no, but I’m not saying yes, either.”
Meanwhile in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday that outdoor restaurant dining and other limited commercial activities can resume June 15, followed by hair salons the week after.
Overall, at least 72,282 people in Pennsylvania and 160,445 in New Jersey have tested positive for the virus.
Philadelphia reported continued progress against the pandemic, with new cases in nursing homes dwindling recently to a handful each day, and no new symptomatic cases in prisons since Saturday. The city on Monday reported an additional 252 confirmed COVID-19 cases and three deaths, bringing its cumulative totals to 22,881 cases and 1,287 deaths.
“The numbers are looking better, but we must remain vigilant in our fight against COVID-19, said city health commissioner Thomas Farley. “If residents have to go out for essential activities, people should commit to wearing a mask.”
But mask precautions have been widely ignored by many protesting the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Following peaceful protests, fires and looting ripped stores in Center City on Saturday, and in neighborhoods in the north and west on Sunday.
Philadelphia closed all city offices — including city-run coronavirus testing sites — on Monday because of the unrest, although dozens of free testing sites remained open, and officials announced a new site finder at phila.gov/testing. All city-run testing sites and health centers are closed Tuesday as well.
Epidemiologists continued to warn that crowded protests, like all mass gatherings where social distancing is impossible, could lead to an increase in infections in the coming weeks.
Such events also complicate contact tracing, in which health officials attempt to notify all who have been exposed to an infected person, in order to interrupt the chain of transmission. Tracers cannot call people whose names they do not know, said Molly Harrar, director of the city’s new contact tracing program.
“Any situation where people are in close contact for a long time, especially when they don’t know them, makes tracing more difficult,” she said.
Though New Jersey is announcing firm plans for reopening hair salons, restaurants, and nonessential retailers, these businesses won’t look like they did back in February, Murphy warned.
Specific guidelines are yet to be released, but as of June 15, outdoor dining at restaurants will be permitted, and retail stores may open at a limited capacity. Personal-care businesses, including hair salons and barber shops, can reopen with restrictions on June 22; gyms and health clubs will open at a later date.
“This will continue to be a phased-in restart,” Murphy said. “Social distancing will continue to be the watchwords of the day, as will face masks."
Though Philadelphia was making no promises, its Pennsylvania suburbs appear poised to turn yellow this week.
In Bucks County, health department director David Damsker said he was confident the county was prepared to move to the yellow reopening phase on Friday. In Pennsylvania, that designation means that gatherings of up to 25 people are permitted, and restaurants are allowed to serve patrons outdoors.
“The community is ready. I don’t think you could switch it if you wanted to,” said Damsker, a physician.
A variety of factors determine when a county can turn yellow. Initially, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said the infection rate should fall below 50 new cases per 100,000 population over 14 days. But Philadelphia and its suburbs have remained well above that threshold.
Now, the state says other risk factors must be weighed, including whether there is adequate testing and the ability to track new infections.
In other developments: