None of the five counties in the Philadelphia region is close to meeting a key goal — a low rate of new infections — that Gov. Tom Wolf initially said needed to be met before parts of the economy could be restarted. Additionally, testing in the area still lags some experts’ benchmarks and that of neighboring states.
Wolf nonetheless intends to move the region from the “red” to the “yellow” phase of his reopening plan next Friday, in a truncation of his own timeline that has left Philadelphia officials skeptical and suburban counties largely eager to reopen.
Mayor Jim Kenney has said publicly that Philadelphia will be ready to enter a modified version of Wolf’s “yellow” phase of reopening, with restrictions tailored for the city, only if the daily number of new cases continues to trend down. But privately, members of his administration have questioned why the governor changed course.
“There has been a significant political influence at the state level that isn’t necessarily prevalent here, and the decision-making at the state level has shifted significantly since the beginning of this crisis, and the one thing we are trying to make sure doesn’t happen here is that we move too rapidly,” said a Kenney administration official who spoke only if not named, to maintain relations with the governor’s office. “Our point to them has stressed that focusing on the data, the science, the metrics, is the right approach."
A spokesperson for Wolf said in a statement Thursday that “local jurisdictions may transition to yellow or green more slowly at their discretion.”
The dynamic is a reversal of sorts for Kenney and Wolf. In the first days after the virus arrived in Pennsylvania, Kenney appeared less eager than Wolf to enact strict measures to control its spread, even encouraging residents, in mid-March, to go out to dinner. But 11 weeks later, their roles have reversed, with the mayor’s administration urging caution against a push to reopen led by Harrisburg.
“I was a little off base in the early stages of it, and we decided to lock down within 10 hours after the state did,” Kenney said Thursday. “This is complicated, but it’s simple. We don’t want people to get sick and die, and that’s what we’re worried about.”
The city on Friday will for the first time release its own metrics for measuring progress in the fight against the virus, as well as guidelines for what the yellow stage of reopening will mean for city businesses. Kenney and Public Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, however, have stressed that a jump to yellow on June 5 is not guaranteed, especially in light of a slight uptick in new cases over the last couple of days that, if it continues, could derail reopening plans.
Most county leaders in the suburbs, however, are less wary of the governor’s shift in approach and are eager to move to yellow, in which gatherings of up to 25 people are allowed and some low-risk businesses, such as stores, can reopen while following social distancing rules. High-risk businesses like bars and restaurants will remain closed except for takeout or delivery.
Of Philadelphia’s collar counties, Montgomery County has been one of the more effective in mitigating the spread of the coronavirus, but it still doesn’t satisfy the per capita rate of new cases. As of Thursday, the county has an average 14-day new case count of 148, more than three times one measure the Wolf administration had said was a key to reopening.
Nonetheless, Val Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County commissioners, said Thursday that the county was "in a pretty good position” to enter the yellow phase because it has increased testing capacity, instituted contact tracing, and reduced the number of unavailable hospital beds.
“We know where our cases are coming from," she said, "we know the situation in the long-term-care facilities, which is not trivial, is absolutely going in the right direction, and so everything is going in the right direction.”
The Wolf administration’s initial tiered and color-coded plan, announced in late April, relied on guidelines outlined by the White House and set a goal for counties to be considered for reopening: report fewer than 50 new confirmed cases per 100,000 people over 14 days. For Philadelphia, that works out to two weeks of averaging 55 new cases per day. On Thursday, the city reported 175 new confirmed cases, up from 97 on Tuesday but down from Wednesday’s 237.
Other states have set more aggressive goals. One benchmark used by California tracks whether counties have had fewer than 25 new cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period, and in Washington state, the bar is 10 new cases before moving to the less restrictive phase.
When the plan was unveiled, Pennsylvania Department of Health officials said other reopening goals to consider included the number of available hospital beds and the amount of community testing available.
The Wolf administration later set a reopening goal of averaging 8,500 tests administered across the state each day, a milestone reached in the last two weeks. Experts have said that that level of testing, however, needs to be more than twice as high and is insufficient to control the virus. The rate of testing in Pennsylvania is significantly less than in New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.
Farley has said that Philadelphia needs to build the capacity to test 5,000 people per day before it can safely reopen large swaths of the economy, but in recent days the city has reported only about 1,700 tests per day.
Last week, a month after the administration laid out its color-coded plan, Wolf announced all Pennsylvania counties still in red would move to the yellow phase of reopening whether or not the counties meet the 50-cases-per-100,000-residents benchmark.
Some in Harrisburg have questioned if Wolf’s announcement to move every county out of the red phase was politically motivated. While Republicans in the General Assembly pressured Wolf, a Democrat, for more than a month to reopen portions of the economy more quickly, some Democrats in Southeastern Pennsylvania last week showed the first signs that they were also losing patience.
Asked if politics played a role, Wolf said last week he was not sure why the 50-new-cases benchmark “was fixed upon” and that it was always one of “many” statistics the administration used to evaluate a region’s readiness to move out of the red phase.
“We said that back at a time when we had less [testing] capacity," he said. “We now know more about what is happening with this virus and where we’re showing success.”
Delaware County, the only in the region without a permanent health department, struggled initially to respond to the virus, relying on the state for resources. With its coronavirus efforts temporarily under the umbrella of the Chester County Health Department, it has begun to ramp up its testing, reaching 250 tests over two days last weekend.
Delaware County Council Chairman Brian Zidek said the county was ready to begin reopening.
“It’s not an on-off switch. It’s more appropriate to say it’s operating on a continuum,” Zidek said. “Moving from red to yellow to green is a degree of loosening some restrictions, and I think in an environment where you see significantly improved evidence regarding the spread of COVID, and in an environment where businesses are beginning to open on their own whether or not people let them, and the confusion and distrust that that would breed, it seems to me to be appropriate to move to yellow phase.”
But, like Montgomery County, Delaware County’s average rate of new cases in Wolf’s per-100,000-resident ratio — 191 as of Thursday — is still far higher than the governor’s original goal of 50, according to Jeanne Casner, head of the Chester County Health Department. Chester County’s is 104.
In Bucks County, new case counts have declined but remain about two to three times Wolf’s original goal. County commissioners, though, have for weeks been enthusiastic about moving the county to yellow, in large part because of Bucks’ contact-tracing program.
Health Department Director David Damsker said county officials have contacted 97% of people who have tested positive, which gives them confidence there’s now a “very low baseline of community spread.”
Damsker also said symptomatic people in the county can be tested without trouble. About 500 diagnostic tests have been performed daily in the county, he said, and they have the capacity “to do vastly more than that,” but demand in recent weeks has decreased.