The spectacular blue skies and warmth almost made Saturday feel like part of a normal spring, a respite from the mean reality of the coronavirus as gardeners dug into backyard plots, hikers trod woodland trails, and golfers teed off on newly reopened courses.
Friends Tibor Kobolak and John Ahn hit the links at the Riverton Country Club in South Jersey, as happy as if it were Christmas morning. “I felt like I was a 10-year-old kid,” Kobolak said, his voice muffled by a protective mask.
Pennsylvania authorities prepared to ease restrictions in 24 counties this week, allowing many businesses to resume in-person operations and freeing residents to leave their homes, provided they take precautions.
At the same time, the slow, welcome seep of normality put the disparities of the crisis on full display, as people rejoiced in the sun even as coronavirus cases and deaths grew in the Philadelphia region and elsewhere, and health authorities bayed like the ancient Cassandra, cursed to know the future but not to be believed.
The one certainty of speedy reopening, experts say, is the virus will spread and sicken more people.
More than 20 states are completely or partially back open for business, even as the United States continues to lead the world with more than 1.1 million coronavirus cases — about a third of the global total — and more than 66,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine announced 1,334 new cases on Saturday for a total of 48,305. So far 2,418 people have died. Philadelphia officials reported 390 new cases, raising that sum to 15,527, along with 67 new deaths.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy reported 2,912 new cases, bringing the state count to 123,717, and 205 more deaths, raising that toll to 7,742.
Preliminary reports of people continuing to socially distance were “so far, so good” in parks, such as Island Beach State Park, that reopened on Saturday, although the governor warned that he “won’t hesitate — and I don’t say this with any joy — to close them again.”
As the state readies to ease restrictions in 24 counties, Levine said Saturday that it’s “impossible to judge” when Southeastern Pennsylvania could begin to reopen. The selected counties aren’t densely populated, have relatively few cases, and hold sufficient capacity for detection and treatment.
All 67 counties remain under a Stay at Home Order through May 8, living in the “red” phase of the administration’s reopening plan. Beginning at 12:01 a.m. Friday, the 24 counties will move from red to yellow. That means many businesses can resume in-person operations and residents can freely leave their homes, so long as they take precautions.
“We cannot forget with the nice weather that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic,” Levine said, urging people to continue to stay at least six feet from one another and to wear masks as they venture outside. “There are still significant increases in COVID-19 in Philadelphia and in the southeast.”
Officials in hard-hit Montgomery County reported 76 more cases on Saturday, raising the countywide total to 4,385, and 13 more deaths, bringing that count to 306.
The county’s top elected official said that while the number of new infections had fallen from previous days, residents should still stay home except for essential work or errands.
“Thanks to the many personal sacrifices made by Montgomery County residents, our new case numbers from the community have plateaued, but we need to get those numbers to start to trend downward before we begin to relax restrictions,” said Valerie Arkoosh, chair of the county Board of Commissioners.
Meanwhile, cell-phone data showed that Americans are on the move, that their adherence to stay-at-home orders may be failing as the pandemic drags on.
Over a three-week period ending late last month, the share of Americans staying close to home steadily shrank, according to an Inquirer analysis of statistics provided by a New York City data firm that aggregates anonymous cell-phone location information from 15 million people.
New Jersey and Pennsylvania have some of the largest shares of people staying indoors, the data showed. But as with the rest of the United States, fewer area residents are staying home as the weather gets warmer, the outbreak lasts longer, and the increase in new cases flattens.
Philadelphia officials rolled out mobile billboards reminding residents to stay home this weekend, sending three trucks to circle parks and public spaces on Saturday. They displayed digital messages such as “#StayHomePHL.”
One week into Ramadan, Muslims in Philadelphia are continuing to navigate the observance of the holy month amid the pandemic. Food distributions have replaced community iftars, and most mosques are closed to observe social distancing.
The Philadelphia Masjid in West Philadelphia has opened its doors to worshipers at night while complying with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. About 20 people at a time are allowed inside to observe taraweeh prayer, a special prayer performed throughout the month. Worshipers are urged to keep a six-foot distance, despite the temptation to stand closer, since Muslims normally pray shoulder to shoulder.
Philadelphia’s Federal Detention Center — one of the only corrections facilities in the region that had no known coronavirus infections — reported its first two cases to a judge. And the coronavirus continues to surge among migrants held in ICE detention centers around the country, up to 522 cases among 1,073 people who were tested.
Murphy announced that 53 New Jersey hospitals will receive about $1.7 billion in federal aid, part of an estimated $12 billion that’s going to 395 hospitals across the country that have been hurt because of pandemic treatment demands.
“Many of our hospitals have taken, quite simply, a financial beating over the past two months,” the governor said.
Murphy said state officials will track data in coming days to see if reopening the parks creates a spike in cases. Minor adjustments for safety were made at parks and golf courses. Pennsylvania courses reopened with similar precautions on Friday.
At the Riverton Country Club, those measures meant one person per golf cart, and no touching the poles at each hole.
Tom Kearns, Riverton’s president, said the 180 golfing slots for this weekend sold out in about four minutes, “a mad dash” among members who have had to practice their swings in backyards or on simulators.
Saturday’s weather was a boon. But not even a downpour would have stopped Ahn from golfing.
“If it were a high of 30 degrees and raining," he said, “I’d still be here.”