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Gov. Tom Wolf warns he will withhold funds from Pa. counties that violate coronavirus stay-at-home order

“The funding we have put aside to help with fighting this crisis will go to the folks who are doing their part,” Wolf said as a growing number of county leaders, Pennsylvania Republicans and businesses intensified pressure for the state to lift the stay-at-home order or provide a reopening timeline.

Like many neighboring businesses in downtown Wayne, Matador restaurant tries to attract customers for take-out with window signs on Monday.
Like many neighboring businesses in downtown Wayne, Matador restaurant tries to attract customers for take-out with window signs on Monday.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday threatened to pull funding from counties or municipalities that defy his shutdown order, saying politicians who push to reopen before the restrictions are lifted would be “jeopardizing the lives” of their citizens.

Pushing back against what has been a rising chorus for restarting the state’s economy, Wolf’s office said he could withhold federal funds earmarked for counties with fewer than 500,000 residents as part of Congress’ coronavirus aid package.

“The funding we have put aside to help with fighting this crisis will go to the folks who are doing their part,” Wolf said. “To the politicians urging businesses to risk their lives, and to risk the lives of their customers or employees, by opening prematurely, you need to understand that they are engaging in behavior that is both selfish and unsafe.”

His comments came as officials across the state and region reported steady but not sharp decreases in the number of new coronavirus cases and deaths, and as a growing number of county leaders, Pennsylvania Republicans, and business owners intensified pressure for the state to lift the stay-at-home order or at least provide a timeline for when they might reopen.

And with rumors swirling that he might visit Pennsylvania this week, President Donald Trump joined the debate, tweeting that "the great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now, and they are fully aware of what that entails. The Democrats are moving slowly, all over the USA, for political purposes.”

» READ MORE: Trump says Pennsylvanians ‘want their freedom now’ as potential Pa. visit looms this week

Two dozen Pennsylvania counties have moved into the “yellow” zone of Wolf’s three-phase plan, and 13 more will follow, mostly in the state’s north and west. Wolf last week extended the stay-at-home order to June 4.

Bucks County Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia, a Democrat, said county officials had pressed the administration over the weekend for a timeline to reopen. Ideally, Ellis-Marseglia said, the county would move to the yellow phase this week, but at the very least should partially reopen before the June 2 primary election.

The dialogue with Harrisburg occurred after Bucks officials, like their counterparts in Delaware County, asked the state to exclude coronavirus cases in long-term-care facilities from the overall counts, a figure that is being used as a benchmark for reopening.

While officials have said they would not exclude care-home cases entirely, the governor said his administration will use some subjectivity in all reopening decisions.

Health Secretary Rachel Levine on Monday described the conversations with Bucks officials as a “very good discussion” and said talks were continuing between the state and the hard-hit Philadelphia region.

“We’re going to be working with … all the [southeastern counties] on a plan for what metrics we’ll be using and how we’ll be looking at the southeast eventually going from red to yellow,” Levine said.

» READ MORE: Can Gov. Wolf withhold coronavirus recovery money from counties that defy shutdown orders? Yes, experts say, but expect pushback.

Pennsylvania on Monday announced 543 additional coronavirus cases, for a total of 57,154, and 24 new deaths, for a total of 3,731. It was too early to say whether there was a downward trend or simply fewer infections reported due to the weekend or Mother’s Day, Levine said.

But with the surge in cases and concern surrounding long-term-care facilities in Pennsylvania — at least 11,801 residents and 1,655 workers have been sickened by coronavirus — she said state officials would release more detailed, facility-specific data by the week’s end.

In New Jersey, the pace of infection was showing “continual moderation,” indicating slow improvement, Gov. Phil Murphy said, and hospitalizations across the state continue to drop.

The governor said he was nearing a decision about when the state may begin to reopen. Murphy said he would release detailed plans on Tuesday for how New Jersey will expand testing and bolster contact tracing efforts to prepare for a return to a normal life.

“We are getting data that is making us more comfortable and confident that we will soon have some hard dates as to when we could truly begin our road back through restart and recovering,” he said.

Philadelphia also reported progress, citing a nearly 20% drop in coronavirus hospitalizations from the city’s peak, the latest sign that the pandemic is easing. Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said there were 822 patients with COVID-19 in city hospitals on Monday, and 102 new confirmed coronavirus cases, bringing the overall tally to 18,313.

While Philadelphia is heading in the right direction, Farley said it was too soon to say when the city may reopen. “But,” he said, “we can start to prepare.”

And while other counties might have been angling for a quicker reopening, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said he agreed with Wolf’s approach.

“There’s nothing worse than jumping the gun and opening up too soon, and falling back with a surge that will kill more people and take us longer to recover,” Kenney said. "I trust the medical advice, I trust the scientific advice, and we’re just going to have to take it day by day.”

Wolf’s threat to withhold federal funds wouldn’t extend to Philadelphia and its surrounding counties: Counties and municipalities with more than half a million people were automatically granted funds to be used for expenses including testing supplies and personal protective equipment.

But commissioners in at least six smaller counties have threatened to defy Wolf’s orders by opening despite their “red” zone status, and top Pennsylvania Republicans, including House Speaker Mike Turzai, have railed against the economic harm of the shutdown. Some district attorneys have said they won’t prosecute violations of the stay-at-home order.

In Chester County, some residents have asked the commissioners to allow a faster reopening, citing their relatively low number of cases — about 1,900.

“We care deeply about everyone in Chester County and we will make what we believe to be the right decision in starting to reopen,” the statement said. “Reopening Chester County is our priority — but we will only begin the stages of reopening when it is truly safe and right to do so.”

In Montgomery County, Commissioner Kenneth Lawrence said he had tested positive for the virus. He said he has not noticed any symptoms and will continue to work from home while self-isolating. “This is an example that we need more community testing and that also asymptomatic people can be positive and never know,” Lawrence said during Monday’s county briefing.

Val Arkoosh, chair of the county commissioners, said those who have been in close contact with Lawrence have been tested. The group of public officials will “base our next steps on the results of those tests,” she said.

Commissioner Joe Gale, the lone Republican commissioner and one who has called for the county to reopen despite not reaching the state’s public health benchmarks for doing so, said he would not be tested. “Testing will not reopen Montgomery County,” said Gale. “We will never have zero cases.”

Brian Zidek, a Democrat who chairs the Delaware County Council, said he understands businesses feel ready to reopen, but urged them to not violate “lawfully executed orders” put in place for the sake of public health, particularly in light of Wolf’s announcement of consequences for businesses that flout the orders.

“We are a nation of laws, and we don’t get to pick and choose those that we want to follow just because we may disagree with them,” he said. "It became even clearer today that’s not a good plan to follow.”

Staff writers Erin McCarthy, Pranshu Verma, Sean Collins Walsh, and Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.