HARRISBURG, Pa, (WHTM) — Governor Tom Wolf Friday afternoon seemed relieved to be finally announcing an easing of COVID-19 restrictions in a huge geographical chunk of north central and north west Pennsylvania.
“Every Pennsylvanian should be proud of the work we all did to flatten this curve,” Wolf said of the statewide mitigation effort that began in mid-March.
But not every Pennsylvanian will enjoy the benefits; not yet, anyway.
Two dozen contiguous and mostly rural counties got golden tickets Friday and they can cash them in beginning next Friday, on May 8. But they are not completely free of restriction. There will still be no open movie theatres, gyms, casinos, salons, restaurant dining rooms, gatherings of 25 or more people, organized sports like Little League, or visits to nursing homes or prisons. A lack of population density was a key component in their changing status and without doubt places with wide open spaces were rewarded.
“Every human to human contact is the chance for the virus to spread,” Wolf said. “So the more contact, the higher likelihood of an outbreak.”
The ability to test new cases of Coronavirus and do contact tracing to prevent outbreaks factored into the decision to move the 24 counties from red to yellow. Dr. Rachel Levine, the PA Health Secretary, said the state continues to ramp up testing capability with an eventual goal of testing 250,000 a month. She said contact tracing teams, that can respond to new cases, are also being beefed up and are key to opening the rest of the state.
“Our contact tracing and testing plans will ensure that as we begin our daily activities we can do so safely and without fear,” Levine said.
“You can be safe and allow economic activity,” said Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny), Pennsylvania’s Speaker of the House, who is as fearful of economic collapse as he is of the virus. Turzai partially blames Wolf for what he calls an overly restrictive shutdown of the economy.
“Dennis, I think we’re up to today 1.7 million unemployment compensation claims filed, that’s over 20 percent,” Turzai said. “And our estimates are that another 500,000 persons are without work.”
Turzai believes more restrictions in more places could be eased without endangering the populous.
But Wolf disagrees and doesn’t want to see outbreaks or backsliding on the gains made in recent weeks. The governor said yellow counties will be closely watched and if there are spikes in the numbers of new coronavirus cases, they could be put back into red status. He also reiterated the need to maintain social distancing, mask-wearing and other safety measures.
Wolf wouldn’t say when the next round of re-openings will be announced but said he’s eyeing counties in the southwest and south central regions.
“We are gonna be reopening facilities in these counties as quickly as we can, but we want to maintain public safety,” Wolf said, adding that he is overwhelmed by the kindness and the sacrifice Pennsylvanians have shown during his stay-at-home orders.