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Philly unveils reopening plans after 14 months of coronavirus shutdowns

Philadelphia will ease more coronavirus restrictions later this month and move toward a full reopening on June 11, officials announced Tuesday.

A group of women run while wearing a face masks.
A group of women run while wearing a face masks.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The sports venues might be about to get louder, the city’s restaurants more crowded and cozier, and the streets of Philadelphia livelier than they have been since the deadly coronavirus began disrupting life in the region and the nation 14 months ago.

On a day when the city reported an encouragingly dramatic drop in COVID-19 case numbers, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley announced Tuesday that the city will lift density limits on offices, stores, museums, and libraries starting May 21, when it also will end the requirement that booze can’t be served without food.

The city’s announcement represented a major step in advance of June 11, when it will terminate all capacity limits. That would be 12 days after Pennsylvania retires its limits for the 66 other counties, which will occur on Memorial Day.

The next restriction-easing comes just in time for a potentially rollicking sports weekend — the 76ers will be hosting a postseason playoff game May 22, while the Boston Red Sox are in town for a three-game series with the Phillies starting the day before — the city is increasing seating limits to 50% capacity.

The Sixers announced Tuesday they would open the Wells Fargo Center to about 10,000 spectators, the revised limit. Under the guidelines, the Phillies could accommodate 21,500. “Once our specific capacity plan is set, we’ll have a further announcement,” the team said in a statement.

On Monday, Pennsylvania will increase indoor-capacity limits to 50%, double the current level, and to 75% for outdoor events, up from 50%.

And as of May 19, New Jersey will remove limits on outdoor gatherings and allow stores, restaurants, theaters, and other businesses to operate at full capacity as long as they keep patrons six feet apart.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia and New Jersey ease coronavirus restrictions

It might all seem rather normal, save for the mask requirements. Gov. Tom Wolf said the state will sunset them once 70% of the adult population is vaccinated. Neither New Jersey nor the city has yet established guidelines.

“I don’t want to put a date on it,” said Farley, adding that he wants to wait and see whether the declining case numbers aren’t merely seasonal. “I want to watch what’s happening with the epidemic here, around the country, what’s happening with our vaccination rates.”

Just under 40% of Philadelphians 18 and older are fully vaccinated and a little less than half have received at least one dose. The number of vaccine doses has continued to decline and last week were down nearly 30% from the level of two weeks prior.

Due to decreased demand, the federal-government-supported vaccine clinics at the Convention Center and Esperanza will continue offering first doses of vaccines even as they give second doses to those who got first doses in the last three weeks.

Anthony Fauci, the White House’s top epidemiologist, said the nation was at a critical juncture in its battle with the coronavirus.

“When we get a certain percentage of people vaccinated — we don’t know exactly what it is, but clearly a majority of the people in this country — we will see a sharp turning point and a marked diminution of cases,” Fauci said in congressional testimony Tuesday.

Through Monday, just over 40% of New Jerseyans had been fully vaccinated, and more than 35% of Pennsylvanians.

Breaking ranks with the commonwealth, Montgomery and Bucks Counties have begun administering doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot to everyone 12 and over, following the Food and Drug Administration’s authorization for that age group Monday, but anyone under 18 must be accompanied by an adult.

Pennsylvania had said it would wait for a vote on expanding the eligibility by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which is scheduled to meet Wednesday.

Philadelphia’s Farley said that his decision on masks will hinge on evidence that vaccinations are indeed driving the decrease in case rates.

» READ MORE: For introverts and people with social anxiety, pandemic lockdown brought relief and more autonomy

For the week that ended Saturday, the city reported a daily average of 241 new cases and a positivity rate of 3.2%, compared with 404 new cases and a 5.1% positive test rate in the previous week.

“I do see hope that this epidemic is fading,” he said.

Another sign that the coronavirus might be on the run: The Philadelphia Marathon tentatively is returning in November.

Virus permitting, the city announced that it will be held Nov. 19 to 21, for now with 50% fewer runners, but that the number of participants could be increased if cases continue declining. Registration begins Wednesday.

“We are excited as we plan for the return of an iconic Philadelphia event,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement. “Today, we’re filled with hope.”

Said Nicole Marquis, owner of HipCityVeg restaurants: ”Hallelujah! ... Our team is overjoyed that we’re able to fully reopen.

“Now, does anyone want to store some space heaters and seat warmers for us?”

Staff writers Matt Breen, Christian Hetrick, Mike Klein, and Erin McCarthy, and Robert Moran contributed to this article.