The Southeastern Pennsylvania counties will almost certainly “be among the last places” in the commonwealth to see an easing of business closures and social distancing orders, Gov. Tom Wolf said Thursday, the day after unveiling a color-coded system for the state’s phased reopening that will allow counties less affected by the coronavirus to begin restarting as early as May 8.
Philadelphia is “not close” to reaching the first phase of reopening, which is coded yellow and would allow the easing of some restrictions, local officials said, and the region’s leaders were unsure whether they would be treated as a bloc or whether counties could reopen at different times.
One restriction will lift statewide: All public and private construction across Pennsylvania can resume May 1, Wolf announced, saying that the industry was a “reasonable place to start” in reopening parts of the economy and that strict safety guidelines would be in place.
State and city health officials said Thursday they could not predict when the Philadelphia region might reach the benchmark needed to take the first steps toward reopening. Philadelphia has averaged about 430 new cases per day for the last several days.
"It would certainly be weeks away,” said city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley. “How many weeks I can’t say. The virus determines its own schedule.”
After a Thursday morning call with officials from Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester Counties, Bucks County Commissioner Bob Harvie said they had questions about whether one county would be able to open sooner if it reached a plateau in cases earlier than others.
Bucks County, for instance, may be able to make a decision on reopening “in the next couple weeks,” county Health Director David Damsker said, though he noted it was likely the timeline would be “relatively the same” across the region.
A Department of Health spokesperson said that while the state “will reopen by county,” that reopening will be considered in the context of the region as a whole, and Wolf said local officials will have a say. One concern, the governor said, is that if one county reopens and people travel there from a neighboring county with a higher rate of infection, that travel could cause a new flare-up in the reopened county and set back progress.
“If one person leaves an area where there’s still a high degree of virus present, like ours is, you have to ask yourself why you’re doing that. You’re putting another community at risk,” said Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, who told residents that the safest place they can stay, even once other counties begin to ease restrictions, is home.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Thursday his plan to reopen New Jersey’s economy may be “broadly similar” to Pennsylvania’s color-coded system. He said he hoped to provide a blueprint for the plan on Monday that would include a set of principles to use to gauge when it is safe to reopen, but said it would not include specific dates.
In Pennsylvania, benchmarks for testing capacity, hospital capacity, and the ability to do contact tracing will be used in addition to the required case threshold to help determine when a given area is ready to reopen, state officials said.
“What’s good for Philadelphia is not going to be good for Cameron County; what’s good for Tioga County is not going to be good for Montgomery County,” Wolf said. “We need to recognize that reality as we move forward.”
Pennsylvania officials on Thursday revised the way they were counting deaths, excluding most probable cases because those cases might not be able to be confirmed, the Department of Health said. Officials removed 200 deaths reported Tuesday from the statewide toll, bringing it to 1,421 people. Of those, 27 probable deaths remain in the count and are assumed to be coronavirus deaths.
Nearly 100,000 people in New Jersey had tested positive for the virus as of Thursday, and 307 deaths brought the state’s death toll to 5,368.
In another possible blow, the Garden State may “have to return a good chunk” of the $1.8 billion in federal funding it received under the CARES Act, Murphy said, saying much of the money allocated for states in the nation’s first coronavirus bailout cannot be used because of federal restrictions.
The funds can’t be used to replenish money budgeted for other regular expenses that states redirected to the coronavirus response, a senior official in the governor’s administration said.
“We may not be able to keep our teachers, cops, firefighters, and paramedics employed,” Murphy said. “Sadly, the message from Washington to our first responders is clear: As you work tirelessly, our national leadership thinks you are not essential.”
The Treasury Department’s guidelines for the funds say states can’t use bailout money for necessary spending incurred due to the pandemic if it wasn’t accounted for in the most recent state budget.
New Jersey’s five centers for people with developmental disabilities were set to receive a new federally approved saliva-based test for the coronavirus created by Rutgers University, Murphy announced. Less invasive than the swab tests, the saliva version will allow all staff and patients at the facilities to be tested. The new test will also be used at a number of the state’s testing centers, Murphy said.
Officials in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania have said additional testing will be needed before social distancing guidelines can be lifted. Philadelphia officials announced Thursday that 10 community health clinics in neighborhoods around the city will begin offering testing, but still recommended only health-care workers and people over age 50 who have symptoms of the coronavirus be tested.
As of Thursday, there were 953 patients hospitalized with the coronavirus in Philadelphia and 1,806 patients hospitalized in the greater Philadelphia area. After days of steady increases in hospitalization, Farley said it was a good sign that those numbers were about level with the previous day.
And Wolf said Thursday he was still “not satisfied” with the amount of unemployment claims the state has been able to fully process thus far, as more than 1.5 million Pennsylvanians have applied for benefits.
The governor didn’t say exactly how many claims have been processed or how many are in waiting but said state officials were adding staffers and new technology to the call center. Many workers have reported jammed phone lines, or problems in the protocols.
He also said a system that went public last Friday aimed at providing benefits to gig and self-employed workers — which Pennsylvania launched a week before required under federal guidelines — “was not a completely smooth rollout.”
Staff writers Erin McCarthy and Vinny Vella and Sara Simon of Spotlight PA contributed to this article.