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Life after coronavirus: Gov. Wolf outlines plan for reopening Pennsylvania but says social distancing must continue for weeks

Mayor Jim Kenney said any conversation about reopening businesses closed amid the coronavirus pandemic would need to come after a significant improvement in “testing, tracking and quarantine."

Next to the Schuylkill River, a runner makes his way under blossoming trees along Kelly Drive on Friday as the often-deserted city continues to practice social distancing.
Next to the Schuylkill River, a runner makes his way under blossoming trees along Kelly Drive on Friday as the often-deserted city continues to practice social distancing.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Gov. Tom Wolf outlined a broad plan Friday to reopen parts of Pennsylvania’s economy by region, but cautioned that the phased reopening cannot happen until the spread of the coronavirus slows further. Social distancing will continue for “the next few weeks,” he said, asking Pennsylvanians to “stay the course.”

Reopening large swaths of the economy now would only “prolong this crisis,” the governor said, warning that the state has a shortage of testing materials and people continue to be hospitalized with, and die of, the highly contagious virus.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney on Friday also dismissed the possibility of the city returning to normal any time soon, as the city’s health commissioner said officials were “absolutely not talking dates right now.”

Wolf’s 20-minute address announcing the reopening plan came after a week of national debate over the issue that saw apparent impatience from President Donald Trump to reopen at least parts of the country and saw governors across the Northeast and elsewhere making moves to take charge.

It also came two days after Pennsylvania Republicans passed legislation — destined for a veto from Wolf — aimed at reopening some businesses that Wolf’s administration had not deemed “life-sustaining” in spite of guidance from top health officials that reopening could reignite the virus’ spread.

Thousands of businesses across the commonwealth are shuttered, and nearly 20% of the workforce has filed for unemployment.

Wolf said his administration would roll out a detailed plan in the coming weeks for relaxing social distancing orders in phases by region, with more specifics coming next week. There will not be “one big day” when Pennsylvania reopens, but it will happen gradually, he said, with guidelines for employers.

“We’re all anxious to get back to work,” the governor said. “What we don’t want to do is reopen and then be hit by this virus in a way that overwhelms our health-care system.”

Wolf also proposed a recovery “framework” of steps to take after reopening: raising wages, expanded worker protections, more paid sick and family leave, expanded unemployment and reemployment aid, and increased education funding.

His plan would “increase wages for all Pennsylvanians,” he said, adding that workers such as those in grocery stores "deserve our gratitude [but] also deserve a living wage,” and said the state should “change the law” to ensure Pennsylvanians cannot be denied health insurance because of preexisting conditions, noting that the potential long-term health effects of the coronavirus remain unknown.

The Pennsylvania Republican Party criticized Wolf’s plan, saying it was not transparent because the governor did not provide a timeline or start date.

“The announcement amounted to, ‘We will tell you the plan when we tell you,’” party chair Lawrence Tabas said in a statement. “The people of Pennsylvania deserve better.”

While the decision to reopen rests largely with governors, the White House on Thursday released guidelines for a phased approach to reopening. They suggest states meet several benchmarks in recovery before beginning the first phase, during which schools would remain closed but some businesses would be allowed to open.

Wolf’s plan acknowledged the same need: areas would only reopen if local health-care systems had enough available beds and equipment and had “strong” testing capabilities. The plan also hinges on monitoring measures to watch for outbreaks.

The city and state are both struggling with a shortage of testing materials. Philadelphia would need a significant improvement in “testing, tracking, and quarantine" to be able to contain the virus and think about reopening businesses, Kenney said.

“People staying alive and not being ill is more important,” Kenney said in a virtual news conference. “People’s lives are more valuable than the dollar.”

Even as residents’ adherence to the life-altering social distancing measures has helped the state to avoid “the most catastrophic of circumstances,” Wolf said, “our ability to prevail remains tenuous,” noting Pennsylvania ranked fifth in the country for confirmed cases. Though the curve has flattened, the case count statewide continues to rise by 1,000 to 2,000 daily.

About 30,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 across Pennsylvania, more than 8,500 of them in Philadelphia alone and thousands more in its collar counties. The southeast and northeast regions of the state have been hit hardest.

Pennsylvania reported 49 deaths and 1,706 newly confirmed cases on Friday, one of the highest daily tallies in recent days, which Health Secretary Rachel Levine attributed to a dump of results after a backlog in some labs. New Jersey reported 323 new deaths and 3,250 confirmed cases.

» READ MORE: As the coronavirus shutdown inches toward summer, Jersey Shore renters and homeowners hold their breath

In Delaware, Gov. John Carney said the state is “days, maybe weeks,” away from entering phase one of the reopening process as outlined by the White House guidelines, and said public schools, currently closed until May 15, will likely not return until next school year

“We haven’t made that decision yet, but looking at these guidelines, that’s probably where we are going to end up,” Carney said on CNN.

In Philadelphia, hospitalizations, which lag behind the number of new positive cases, continue to increase, city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said. There were 1,633 coronavirus patients hospitalized in Southeastern Pennsylvania on Friday, including 852 in city hospitals. Though one-third of all hospital beds and one-third of all intensive care beds in Southeastern Pennsylvania remained available, individual hospitals were at or near capacity, he said.

» READ MORE: The drive to reopen the Pa. economy is part of a national partisan battle

Levine said there has been an increase in hospital admissions in the southeast and northeast, but the state is still “keeping up” with bed availability. She said she had not received reports of hospitals at full capacity and no Philadelphia-area patients have been moved to the overflow facility at Temple University’s Liacouras Center. Across the commonwealth, 2,524 people are hospitalized with the virus, and 654 of them are on ventilators

As a handful of demonstrations against state social distancing measures and business closures have cropped up across the country — some encouraged Friday by Trump, who tweeted phrases like “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” — a similar protest was planned for Monday in Harrisburg.

Lt. Gov John Fetterman, appearing on CNN on Friday morning, encouraged people to be patient.

“You know, the virus doesn’t have a calendar. The virus doesn’t say, ‘I have to wrap this up by May 1,’” he said. “We cannot afford to politicize this virus…. It doesn’t check your party affiliation before it infects you.”

Wolf thanked Pennsylvanians for their “sacrifices,” saying residents were repaying health-care workers on the front lines by staying home and urging them to “be that example” for the rest of the nation.

“Let’s continue to make this good progress in keeping people safe,” he said, “and then when the time is right, we’re going to reopen, and we’ll liberate every single Pennsylvanian.”

Staff writers Rob Tornoe, Erin McCarthy, Laura McCrystal, and Vinny Vella contributed to this article.