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Red light, green light: What do Pa.’s reopening phases mean for Philly amid the coronavirus pandemic?

Gov. Tom Wolf has unveiled a color-coded system that will serve as a road map for the reopening of Pennsylvania counties, all of which are currently shut down due to the coronavirus. What does each color mean exactly?

A City of Philadelphia public service advertisement lights up the side of a bus stop shelter for the "Stay at Home Order" as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
A City of Philadelphia public service advertisement lights up the side of a bus stop shelter for the "Stay at Home Order" as the coronavirus pandemic continues.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Gov. Tom Wolf has unveiled a color-coded system that will serve as a road map for the reopening of Pennsylvania counties, all of which are currently shut down due to the coronavirus.

“I am attempting to provide as much certainty as I can," he said Wednesday evening, “even though the virus ultimately controls the calendar for each and every one of us.”

For some more-rural areas that are less affected by the virus (read: not Philadelphia or its surrounding suburbs), the gradual, phased reopening process could begin in about two weeks — around Friday, May 8. He said Thursday southeastern Pennsylvania “will be among the last” areas to ease restrictions.

Still a little confused? Want more information on exactly what each phase will look like? Let us answer some of your questions.

What are the phases?

Wolf calls them red, yellow, and green.

Red marks the most restrictive phase, the one we’re in now, during which nonessential businesses are closed and Pennsylvanians are advised to stay put except for absolutely necessary outings.

The yellow phase is less restrictive than red, and allows for some businesses that can’t operate remotely to call employees back to the workplace as long as they practice social distancing and follow public health guidelines. In this phase, people can travel more freely and see relatives and friends in small group settings. Businesses like gyms, theaters, and restaurants (takeout and delivery are allowed) would remain closed.

The green phase comes with no restrictions, although individuals and businesses will still have to follow state and federal recommendations, including to wear a mask in public.

So what has to happen before we can enter the yellow phase?

An area would have to see a declining number of cases for a two-week period before moving from the red to yellow phase or from yellow to green, and the region’s hospitals must have adequate capacity.

When will this happen for the Philadelphia region?

It’s unclear.

Wolf has said northwestern and north-central parts of the state will likely be the first to reopen, and southeastern areas will be among the last.

According to his plan, case numbers and hospital capacity are to be assessed “county-by-county." Wolf reiterated this in a conversation with reporters Thursday, saying the reopening would not be regional.

Hours later, Health Secretary Rachel Levine appeared to directly contradict the governor, saying the process will occur “region by region.”

“We might have a county where the rest of the region is having significant rates of COVID-19, but they might meet that [reopening] criteria. We would not open that region," she said. "It’s not going to be isolated county by county. It is going to be actually region by region.”

“We will reopen by county, but then look at the region as a whole,” a Health Department spokesperson said to clarify the discrepancy in statements.

» READ MORE: What’s allowed to be open in Pennsylvania?

Wolf has also indicated the reopening will happen in a similar way to how the shutdown was implemented last month. In the Philadelphia region, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties were placed under stay-at-home orders the same day.

After talking with officials from Philadelphia and its collar counties Thursday, Bucks County Commissioner Bob Harvie said the region’s leaders wanted more clarity on whether they’d all reopen at one time or be on different timelines.

In looking at whether an area can reopen, state officials will measure the rate of infection per capita. An area will be considered for reopening if it has had an average of 50 or fewer new cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period. But even if a place meets this criterion, it could be deemed unfit to reopen if it’s near a “hot spot" in another county.

The White House and city officials have disagreed over whether Philadelphia should be considered a hot spot.

County officials will also have a say in whether an area can move to the next phase, the governor said.

Montgomery County, with a population of nearly 831,000, has in recent days reported 50 or fewer new cases per 100,000 residents. Yet Val Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners and a physician, said last week the county doesn’t plan to reopen until “the number of cases falls to zero or near zero."

Philadelphia-area hospitals, while not at capacity, have also been among the most taxed in the state.

Can I see a fuller breakdown of what’s allowed and what’s not allowed in each phase?

For sure.

In the red phase:

  1. Only life-sustaining businesses are open.

  2. Long-term care facilities, prisons, and other group-living settings have restrictions.

  3. All schools are closed for in-person classes, and most child-care facilities are closed.

  4. Stay-at-home orders are in place and large gatherings are prohibited.

  5. Restaurants are limited to takeout and delivery.

  6. Only travel if absolutely necessary.

» FAQ: Your coronavirus questions, answered

In the yellow phase:

  1. Businesses that have to operate in-person can reopen with safety guidelines in place.

  2. Elsewhere, remote work should continue.

  3. Stay-at-home restrictions are lifted.

  4. Gatherings of more than 25 people are prohibited.

  5. Gyms, spas, casinos, theaters, and other similar health and entertainment establishments must remain closed.

  6. In-person retail stores can open but curbside and delivery shopping is “preferable."

  7. Child-care facilities can open with safety restrictions.

  8. Long-term care facilities, prisons, and other group-living settings still have restrictions.

  9. All schools must remain closed for in-person classes.

  10. Restaurants are still limited to takeout and delivery.

In the green phase:

  1. All businesses can open.

  2. There are no social or work restrictions.

  3. Individuals and businesses must still follow federal and state health guidelines.

Once an area enters a certain phase, is that permanent?


If cases spike after orders are relaxed, an area may have to go back to a previous stage and its tougher restrictions.

Staff writer Anna Orso contributed to this article.