Gov. Tom Wolf planned to announce a new group of counties cleared to move from the state’s red to yellow phase for reopening on Friday, and said Thursday he also hoped to name the first counties that would go from yellow to green and enter the least-restrictive phase of reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Also on Thursday, Wolf signed a bill allowing cocktails to go, and his administration announced $9 million in grants to nonprofits fighting hunger, while Philadelphia worked on plans for modified summer camps and some in the Philadelphia suburbs continued to agitate for faster reopening.
On the eve of Memorial Day weekend, Health Secretary Rachel Levine asked residents in red areas, like Southeastern Pennsylvania, to not head to the Jersey Shore or other areas of Pennsylvania that are under fewer restrictions, saying the stay-at-home order means people should stay home and long trips are not recommended.
Meanwhile, New Jersey is “moving closer” to phase two of its economic restart, Gov. Phil Murphy said Thursday. However, the state still has a higher rate of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths per 100,000 residents than Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut, which is delaying its return to normal life.
“While we’re trying to move as quickly as we can, we’re moving as safely as we must,” Murphy said.
Earlier Thursday, however, Murphy said on CNBC that he could reopen hair salons and indoor dining establishments in a “matter of weeks” if the state’s numbers continue their downward trend. The state’s phase two will allow outdoor and indoor dining to resume and libraries and museums to reopen, with restrictions.
Like Wolf, Murphy faces mounting pressure to accelerate the reopening. New Jersey’s Republican Party sued the Murphy administration Thursday in an effort to force the reopening of nonessential businesses, saying their closure was unconstitutional.
“Gov. Murphy has irreparably harmed New Jersey small businesses by arbitrarily declaring some essential and others nonessential,” GOP Chairman Douglas Steinhardt said in a statement. “While mom-and-pop barbers, bars, brew pubs and retail shops are shuttered and struggling, big-box stores, with big cash cushions, survive.”
The governor’s office declined to comment. Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney has also pushed Murphy to speed the reopening timeline in recent days.
“My big fear,” Murphy tweeted Wednesday in response to Sweeney’s criticism, “is that people will die needlessly because politicians are rushing a reopening contrary to public health guidance and data."
New Jersey reported 1,304 newly confirmed cases, increasing the state’s positive caseload to 151,472, and 98 deaths, bringing the state’s death toll to 10,843.
Pennsylvania reported 980 additional confirmed cases, for a total of 65,392, and 102 deaths, for a total of 4,869.
Two children in the state have had confirmed cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome, Levine said. The state, which asked health-care providers to start reporting cases about two weeks ago, has also received reports of other suspected cases of the pediatric syndrome, which has been linked circumstantially to the coronavirus.
Pressure on Wolf to revise his reopening metrics for this region continued from Delaware County, where county leaders said Thursday that state officials indicated they’d release more information about the area’s reopening by the end of the week.
“We have been pleading with Harrisburg" to consider a different metric for Southeastern Pennsylvania, County Council Chairman Brian Zidek told residents late Wednesday in a video, and “Harrisburg, I think, is listening.”
Delaware County trails Philadelphia and the other collar counties in flattening the curve of new cases. On Thursday, the county opened its first drive-through and walk-up testing site at Upper Darby High School.
None of the Southeastern Pennsylvania counties has had fewer than 50 newly confirmed cases per 100,000 people over the last 14 days — the quantitative benchmark set by the Wolf administration for moving from the red to yellow phase.
Still, Bucks County leaders on Thursday said, too, hoped their county would be approved for yellow status in Wolf’s Friday announcement.
Levine cautioned against businesses such as salons and gyms reopening in defiance of state orders, the day after a Media barbershop reopened and as New Jersey ordered a Bellmawr gym to close.
“By definition, their professional care is hands-on,” she said. “That type of personal contact could transmit COVID-19 and until an area is in the green zone, we’re concerned about it precipitating community spread.”
Because the virus can spread even if no symptoms are present, preventive measures by business owners such as client temperature checks and other screenings can’t rule out the possibility that someone is contagious, Levine said.
To keep the downward trend in Philadelphia’s virus statistics going, City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said, residents should continue to stay home except when it is necessary to go out, wear masks when they leave their homes, and wash their hands frequently.
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The Philadelphia Water Department said residents unable to pay their water bills due to hospitalization or loss of employment won’t have their service shut off though at least July 10, and penalties and late fees have been suspended until further notice.
The University of Pennsylvania, in a lengthy email to the campus on Thursday, said it would decide on a path for the fall semester by the end of June, laying out multiple scenarios that ranged from fully online courses, to a hybrid model, to classes in person until Thanksgiving and online from Thanksgiving to winter break.
“What we can say is that until a vaccine is widely available, and [while] the threat of spreading the novel coronavirus remains real," the Penn leaders wrote, “even the best scenarios foresee a fall semester and a school year that requires new community-wide protocols and practices, unlike any other in Penn’s long history.”
The university leaders also said “better and more readily available testing,” contact tracing and isolation space for anyone sickened would all be needed before students could return. Still, campus life would be greatly altered: fewer students living on campus, take-out or reservations at the dining hall, regular testing for the virus, and everyone wearing face masks and keeping their distance, the email said.
New Jersey on Thursday also released guidelines ahead of a busy harvesting season to protect migrant farm workers from contracting the coronavirus. Employers are required to follow screening, sanitizing, and safety guidelines, including providing beds at least six feet apart in worker housing and keeping any transport vehicles at least half empty.
“Thousands of seasonal farm workers come to work on New Jersey farms each spring to pick fresh fruits and vegetables,” Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said. “Protecting seasonal workers on these farms is a high priority because they work and live in close proximity to one another.”
Staff writers Anna Orso, Sean Collins Walsh, Ellie Silverman, Susan Snyder, Rob Tornoe, and Michael Klein contributed to this article.