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The Philadelphia region will move to the ‘yellow’ coronavirus reopening phase on June 5, Wolf announces, and some other counties will go ‘green’ next week

Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lehigh, Northampton, Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties will move to the yellow phase on June 5.

Governor Tom Wolf is planning to announce that all Pa. counties, including Philadelphia and its suburbs, will move to the 'yellow' phrase of reopening
Governor Tom Wolf is planning to announce that all Pa. counties, including Philadelphia and its suburbs, will move to the 'yellow' phrase of reopeningRead moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania counties still under strict coronavirus restrictions — including hard-hit Philadelphia and its suburbs — will move to the “yellow” phase of reopening by June 5, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Friday.

Eight counties — Dauphin, Franklin, Huntingdon, Lebanon, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, and Schuylkill — will move to yellow on May 29. The counties of Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northampton, and Philadelphia will begin the yellow phase the following week, on June 5.

Under the Wolf administration’s reopening plan, the yellow phase means most but not all businesses can reopen, limitations on public gatherings remain, and restaurants and bars remain closed to in-person business. Gyms, salons, malls, and movie theaters also remain closed. Of the state’s 67 counties, 49 are already in the yellow phase.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said Friday his administration would release guidance next week on “what Philadelphians need to know when we move to the yellow phase” and reminded residents that the stay-at-home order is still in effect.

“The next two weeks are critical — if we see a spike in cases it will jeopardize any hope we have of beginning to open,” Kenney warned.

» READ MORE: When will we reopen? How Pennsylvania decides what’s in the red, yellow, and green phases.

The governor on Friday also announced the first group of counties that will move to the green phase, which lifts business-closure orders entirely but still requires establishments to implement safety and social-distancing procedures. Restaurants, salons, gyms, malls, and movie theaters can operate at 50% capacity or less, and there are limits on sporting events and concert venues. The counties moving to that phase — all concentrated in the northern and central parts of the state — will do so May 29.

The Wolf administration did not release specific benchmarks counties must meet to move into the green phase, other than saying “counties that have been in the yellow phase for the requisite 14 days have been closely monitored for the risk associated with transitioning to the green phase.”

Among the metrics established by Wolf’s administration to determine when counties could move from red to yellow were testing capacity and hospitalization rates, as well as a requirement that counties report fewer than 50 new cases per 100,000 residents over the course of 14 days.

No county in the southeastern part of the commonwealth has reached that benchmark yet; Delaware County, which has the highest per capita case rate in the Philadelphia region, according to state data, is farthest away from that measure.

Four weeks after announcing that benchmark, Health Secretary Rachel Levine said it was now “less critical” as a metric, and Wolf said his administration had “broadened the number of things that we look at."

State officials feel “comfortable and confident” that Philadelphia will be in a position to reopen some businesses by June 5, Wolf said during a Friday news conference.

Asked to address critics who say Wolf has completely changed his plans and abandoned certain metrics for reopening, the governor said the plan was always fluid and took into account multiple factors, including testing capacity, which has improved.

The governor said he was “trying to do what a democracy is supposed to do” in a crisis and that he did not plan to operate under the powers granted to him in an emergency for any longer than necessary.

“My stay-at-home order did exactly what it intended to do," Wolf said. “It saved lives.”

While Republicans in the General Assembly have for months pressured the administration to reopen parts of the economy more quickly, Democrats in Southeastern Pennsylvania have also over the past week increased pressure on Wolf to communicate ways their counties could move to the yellow phase. Some local officials have pressured the administration to change its reopening metrics and count coronavirus cases in long-term care facilities as separate from other confirmed cases.

Chester County commissioners said in a statement Friday they were “pleased” the governor planned to relax restrictions in the county. They plan to roll out a program next week to begin preparing business and organizations to reopen with safety measures in place and aim to move Chester County to the green phase “no later than the end of June,” they said.

Both Chester and Bucks Counties began tracking positive cases by their onset date, as opposed to when they were reported by labs, hospitals, and other health-care facilities, unlike state health officials. That, combined with contact tracing, said Bucks County Health Director David Damsker, has given his county a clearer picture of where and how the virus was spreading.

Damsker, who said the county could reopen safely, called the governor’s metric for a downward trajectory of cases “arbitrary.”

“We could tell our … pure community spread is down,” said Damsker.

After Wolf’s announcement, Archbishop Nelson Pérez announced Friday night on Facebook that he expected the celebration of daily and Sunday Masses in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to resume on June 6.

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said the city would move carefully and have systems in place to measure any increased viral activity as the region eases restrictions. Officials are watching not only the number of new coronavirus cases per day but also how many hospital beds are available, how much testing is occurring, and other metrics, he said.

He advised residents to prepare for a “new normal” that includes changes to everyday life to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Adjustments will include limits on the number of people in one indoor space together, Plexiglas barriers between people to prevent the spread of respiratory droplets, decals on store floors for spacing in lines, and the use of masks.

“Because COVID-19 can re-surge at any time, we still need to be smart, wear masks, limit gatherings, work from home as much as possible, and look out for one another," Kenney said in a statement. “When some sectors of our economy reopen, businesses must do everything possible to keep employees and customers safe.”

The state’s social distancing and business closures saved lives, Wolf said as he announced the reopening plans and thanked Pennsylvanians for their efforts.

“It feels as though a minute passed and an eternity, both, since Pennsylvania’s first COVID-19 case on March 6,” the governor said. “We didn’t know how severe Pennsylvania’s outbreak would become or if we could stop it from growing. … Today we have a lot more answers than we did back then.”

His announcement came on a day that the commonwealth reported 866 additional positive cases, bringing its total to 66,258, and 115 new deaths for a total of 4,984.

In New Jersey, too, progress toward reopening was being made. Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday changed the state’s limit on outdoor gatherings from 10 people to 25 in time for the holiday weekend.

“If you were looking forward to gathering with your neighbors for Memorial Day cookout you may do so,” he said at a news conference. “So long as social distancing and personal responsibility remain the order of the day.”

Murphy announced 1,394 more confirmed coronavirus cases for a total of 152,719 in the state and another 146 COVID-19 deaths, for a total of 10,985 people confirmed to have died from the coronavirus in New Jersey.

He warned residents not to risk undoing progress over the weekend and reminded people not to gather indoors with anyone outside their household.

"Every trend we need to see to move along our road back we are seeing. Every key indicator is down from the peak,” Murphy said. “As we enter this weekend, yes, please enjoy it, but don’t get complacent.”

Staff writers Laura McCrystal, Erin McCarthy, Ellie Silverman, Chris Brennan, Jeremy Roebuck, and Robert Moran contributed to this article.