Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect a change in the number of deaths that the Pennsylvania Department of Health has confirmed on Wednesday.
Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled more details for a three-phased plan to ease social distancing guidelines that will apply to individual regions of the commonwealth, beginning with north-central and northwest counties.
As of Wednesday, 35,968 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the commonwealth, with the hardest hit counties in the eastern part of the state. A total of 1,622 Pennsylvanians have died from the virus, health officials say.
To determine when a region is ready to reopen and return to work, the state will evaluate the rate of coronavirus cases per capita. When the health department verifies an average of less than 50 per 100,000 people sustained over 14 days, that county will be eligible to transition to the “new normal,” where close monitoring of public health indicators of resurgence of cases will be in effect.
The Wolf administration has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to create a data-driven information and support utility, which state officials say is designed to strike a balance between mitigating public health risks and minimizing the economic strain to businesses.
“We will not just be flipping a switch and going from closed to open, and ultimately the virus is going to set the timeline,” Wolf said Wednesday. “There is no single tool we will be using to determine reopening. Rather we will look at several pieces to ensure that our case count is under control and that we have the local support to manage the cases and outbreaks.”
State House Republicans, who have criticized the Wolf administration’s alleged lack of transparency and unwillingness to ease restrictions on small businesses, applauded the governor’s statement Wednesday.
“We look forward to continuing to engage with the administration and all branches of government to rebuild and recover our economy,” House Republicans said in a statement. “We must continue to help the millions of Pennsylvanians who are out of work as a result of this pandemic by processing unemployment compensation claims in a timely manner and getting funds to self-employed residents.”
Right now, the entire state is in the “red” category, meaning only businesses deemed life-sustaining are open, travel is restricted for to life-sustaining purposes and large gatherings are prohibited. But using a tentative timeline, state officials set May 8 as the target date to transition north-central and northwest counties, which have seen the state’s lowest levels of COVID-19 cases, into the “yellow” phase.
In the yellow category, companies have to use telework when possible, but operations can resume in-person while abiding by building and business safety orders. Retail services will be permitted, although state officials urge businesses to continue to prioritize curbside and delivery options. Stay-at-home orders will be lifted in favor of other mitigation tactics.
However, indoor recreation and health fitness areas and entertainment facilities will remain closed, and restaurants and bars will be restricted to carry-out and delivery only.
Such aggressive mitigation efforts — stay-at-home orders and non-life-sustaining business closures — will be lifted in the “green” phase. There is no tentative date for this phase. During this time, companies will be required to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.
State officials have not released guidelines for reopening specific industry sectors, although they said the same data-driven approach to determining area-specific re-openings will be applied to the business sector.