Philadelphia’s retailers, day care centers, and offices will be allowed to reopen on a limited basis Friday for the first time in about 10 weeks, as authorities said the coronavirus was finally loosening its grip on the city.
“We’ve gone through some pretty tough times on the COVID,” said Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner. “It does look like the epidemic is fading.”
Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester Counties on Friday will also all move to “yellow” status from the state’s current “red” phase, the most restricted set of conditions aimed at containing the virus. These counties join 57 others in Pennsylvania in the yellow or “green” phases of reopening, so as of Friday every county in the state will be at some stage of reopening. The state has reported 73,942 cases and 5,817 deaths during the pandemic.
In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday detailed plans for restaurants resuming outdoor service and nonessential retail opening at 50% capacity beginning June 15.
Restaurant tables must be at least six feet apart with no more than eight people per table. Masks are required of all shoppers and workers at stores. Businesses must erect barriers between shoppers and cashiers, regularly sanitize supplies used by staff, and establish special shopping hours for vulnerable populations.
Barber shops and salons are expected to reopen June 22, and youth summer camps can resume July 6.
“We have all waited for this,” Murphy said at a news conference Thursday. “So long as we continue practicing social distancing, and so long as retailers do all we are requiring of them to protect their stores and customers, we will take a big step forward in our restart and recovery.”
In Philadelphia, protests that have roiled the city since Saturday did not alter plans to begin loosening restrictions, though medical experts have cautioned they could contribute to a comeback for the coronavirus. Being in a large group outdoors is safer than an indoor activity, but the proximity of protesters to each other and police, arrests that confine people in small spaces, and the effects of tear gas, which causes coughing, worry physicians and scientists. The coronavirus is spread most efficiently via respiratory droplets expelled particularly while coughing, shouting, or singing.
Farley said he was optimistic that crowds protesting the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer, though they numbered at times in the thousands, won’t spur a resurgence of the virus in the city.
“We do have concerns about that,” he said. “However, I have noticed in the protests many protesters were wearing masks, in many cases they were keeping their distance from other people.”
The city is recommending that anyone who participated in protests should keep a distance from others, monitor themself for symptoms, and be tested for COVID-19 seven days after the event they attended. City testing staff will not ask people whether they attended any demonstrations.
While protests could contribute to an uptick in COVID-19 cases, that shouldn’t necessarily preclude the region from moving to a yellow reopening phase, said Lawrence Livornese, chairman of medicine for Main Line Health and an infectious disease specialist.
“The longer we wait to make this move and the longer we isolate, the better chance we have of decreasing the epidemic. On the other hand is the mounting pressure of the economic and psychological burden of isolation. How do you balance those two?” Livornese said.
Farley said data on positive test results will indicate whether the week’s events led to significantly more cases of the virus. He also noted that the crowds that surged to the Jersey Shore for Memorial Day weekend — not quite two weeks ago — have so far not appeared to cause a significant increase in COVID-19 cases.
Among the measures used to determine when a county can shift to yellow: the number of available hospital beds, the ability to test for new cases, and health departments’ capacity for contact tracing — the process of identifying and warning others who may have been in contact with a person testing positive for COVID-19.
Area hospitals appear to have adequate capacity for now. Philadelphia and its four suburban Pennsylvania counties have about 450 available intensive-care beds, according to a data “dashboard” maintained by the state Department of Health. The city’s hospitals have the capacity to handle twice as many COVID-19 patients as they are now treating, Farley said.
But with the city still seeing more than 100 new cases a day, contact tracing may be a challenge, said Alison M. Buttenheim, associate professor of nursing and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. The city has launched a tracing program, but it is just getting started.
“We’re not at the point where every positive case triggers a full contact tracing,” Buttenheim said. “We’re less able to nip these new chains of transmission in the bud.”
The city’s shift to the yellow phase is largely in step with Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan for reopening Pennsylvania, with one big exception. The state’s guidelines say gatherings of up to 25 people are acceptable. The city says that still isn’t safe.
“We’re not recommending social gatherings of people outside the household at all,” Farley said.
Some city offices won’t reopen until Monday, officials said, and authorization for outdoor dining has been postponed until next weekend. The protests delayed the city’s plans to provide restaurants that don’t typically have outdoor seating with recommendations to open safely.
The yellow phase requires retail businesses to limit occupancy to no more than five customers per 1,000-square feet of space, and ensure both customers and employees are wearing masks. The city is encouraging retailers to offer curbside pickup.
Child care facilities are also reopening in Philadelphia and its Pennsylvania suburbs. They must follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, including carefully coordinated drop-off and pickup procedures that allow for social distancing; health screening with temperature checks on arrival; lots of extra hand-washing and sanitizing; spacing out cribs and cots; and restrictions on what children may bring from home.
All child care workers will wear masks. Masks are not appropriate for children under age 2 because of the risk of suffocation, and Pennsylvania health officials are not recommending face coverings for older children. “Masks slip, kids touch it more often, and adults have to touch it” to put it back in place, Tracy Campanini, deputy secretary of the Office of Child Development and Early Learning, said at a news conference this week.
Officials in Pennsylvania and New Jersey still recommend people work from home if possible. Employees who must return to their workplace and think their employer isn’t properly following safety protocols can call the city, but officials acknowledged they have little ability to intervene if the employer is taking recommended precautions.
“If we do see a big increase in the spread of the virus, we may have to backtrack,” Farley said. “None of us want to see that happen, and the way to have that not happen is for people to take the safety checklist, the safety guidelines, seriously.”
City officials reported 121 new COVID-19 cases since Wednesday, far fewer than the 500 to 600-a-day the city was seeing in mid-April. That makes a total of 23,281 since the beginning of the pandemic. Of the people being tested, only 7% are now coming back positive for the virus compared with 40% during the peak of the virus. There have been 1,394 deaths in Philadelphia as a result of COVID-19. A little more than half of those were among nursing home residents.
The virus continues to take its toll. Managing Director Brian Abernathy announced Thursday a 62-year-old city police officer, Jose Novoa, died Wednesday of COVID-19 symptoms. The 27-year veteran assigned to the Ninth District is survived by his wife, two daughters, and two grandchildren.
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said Novoa’s “immense dedication and full sacrifice will forever be honored.”
In Delaware County, officials urged residents to continue with social distancing precautions as businesses reopen.
“It’s important to stress that this is such a crucial period during the fight of this virus,” said County Council Member Kevin Madden. “This isn’t a one-way street. It would be so easy for us to lower our guards, stop taking precautions, and cause a spike. That has happened elsewhere.”