New Jersey is ready to allow curbside pickup at retail businesses, Philadelphia is looking into a contact-tracing program in preparation for reopening, and the four collar counties are nudging the state to lift restrictions sooner rather than later.
From Trenton to Harrisburg, from City Hall to the county seats, the consensus is that the ferocity of the coronavirus pandemic shows signs of waning. But with the effects still evident and people still dying, just when the region would begin return to open up remained as uncertain Wednesday as the career of the virus itself.
President Donald Trump, who plans to visit the Lehigh Valley on Thursday, has criticized “blue state” governors and singled out Pennsylvania as moving too slowly and says he wants schools to open in the fall.
But Gov. Tom Wolf has stated emphatically that he will not be pressured into accelerating Pennsylvania’s timetable, and on Wednesday his health secretary, Rachel Levine, was noncommittal about when Bucks County or the other 29 counties still in shutdown might be able to enter the first, or “yellow,” phase of reopening.
“We are looking at all our data and metrics and models right now, and then we’ll be pleased to work with the counties when we have more data this week,” she said.
Wolf’s threat to withhold stimulus money to counties that were threatening to rebel against the state’s restrictions evidently had some effect, as some counties were abandoning plans to restart their economies.
Pennsylvania on Wednesday reported 707 additional confirmed cases of the coronavirus for a total of 58,698. With 137 new deaths, the state total reached 3,943. New Jersey’s death toll rose to 9,702, with 141,568 total cases.
But some positive signs that the era of societal shutdown and economic disruption might actually end someday, or at least abate, were emerging.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order Wednesday allowing nonessential retail businesses to reopen for curbside pickup only and for nonessential construction to resume, effective at 6 a.m. Monday. Under the order, drive-in and drive-through services will also be allowed to resume with social distancing guidelines in place.
“We are taking the next steps down New Jersey’s road back,” Murphy said.
But he said that road is likely to be more like Route 9 on a summer Saturday than the New Jersey Turnpike. "Each step that eases us down this road is being taken because public health medical experts and the data tell us that it is now safe to do so,” he said.
New Jersey officials announced Wednesday that more than 21,000 individuals have applied to become contact tracers in the state. The process has been a key tool in handling infectious diseases for a century to stop the transmission chains.
Philadelphia officials are preparing for contact tracing, said Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, working to develop protocols and hire employees.
“Success doesn’t mean ‘no virus,’” Farley said. “What success looks like in the future is that the virus is at such a low level that we can resume most of our activities and most people are not going to get infected.”
While polls show that a majority of Americans support the health and safety protocols, the devastation to state and local treasuries and the overall economy have been at the core of arguments for speeding up reopening timetables.
In New Jersey, Murphy said state revenue collected in April is projected to be 60% lower than the same time in 2019, a $3.5 billion hit to state coffers.
“I fear for what the budget will look like for our state, for our businesses, and most importantly for our people,” Murphy said. “We need direct federal cash assistance."
However, save for Beaver, Lancaster, and Lebanon Counties, which were moving forward with opening plans, Pennsylvania counties were complying with Wolf’s timetable as Republicans in the General Assembly continue to pass reopening bills destined for veto.
Chester County officials on Wednesday again indicated they would err on the side of caution despite relatively low coronavirus case counts.
They extended the county’s essential-services-only operation — which includes the 911 Center and the county prison — through June 4. Since the order went in effect on March 14, 60% of the county’s programs have been able to operate remotely, according to the commissioners.
Delaware County Commissioner Brian Zidek, a Democrat, told lawmakers Wednesday the issue of reopening counties has become too political.
“We all want the same thing,” he said. “We want our businesses to be up and running.… I ask everyone to stop politicizing this. It’s not all Trump’s fault, it’s not all Wolf’s fault.”
In a move that might make the waiting a little easier, the state Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill allowing bars and licensed restaurants to sell mixed drinks for takeout during the pandemic.
The bill’s next step is the House and then to the desk of Wolf, who has indicated that he would sign it, providing a shot in the arm for businesses that have been largely idled since mid-March, when dining rooms and barrooms were closed by his order.
And not just a shot in the arm.
Staff writers Michael Klein, Ellie Rushing, and Jonathan Tamari, and Cynthia Fernandez of Spotlight PA, contributed to this article.