Pandemic restrictions to ease in 12 Pennsylvania counties

FILE - In this March 12, 2020, file photo, Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania speaks at a news conference at Pennsylvania Emergency Management Headquarters in Harrisburg, Pa. Wolf is struggling to fight against a Republican revolt over his stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns. Egged on by state GOP lawmakers, counties have threatened to defy his orders while at least a few business owners have reopened their doors despite his warnings.

HARRISBURG — Seventeen counties in Pennsylvania will enter the green phase of the state’s reopening strategy on May 29, meaning bars, gyms, barbershops and beauty salons, theaters and shopping malls can reopen and eat-in dining is permitted.

The same day, eight more counties will move from the most restrictive red phase to the yellow phase and by June 5, the entire state will either be in the yellow or green phases, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Friday.

The counties moving to the green phase include 17 of the 24 north-central and northwestern counties that were first moved from the red phase to the yellow phase.

The green phase counties are Bradford, Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Montour, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Venango and Warren counties.

The governor's announcement came hours after the state Department of Health announced that the number of people who've tested positive for coronavirus in Pennsylvania hit 66,258 and the state's death toll hit 4,984. But the governor said the rate at which the disease is spreading appears to be slowing and the state's ability to test and monitor the outbreak has improved.

“We know not only that we succeeded in slowing case growth, but that our actions, our collective decisions to stay at home and avoid social contact — we know that saved lives,” Gov. Wolf said. “My stay-at-home order did exactly what it was intended to do: It saved lives and it bought us valuable time.”

In the green phase areas, shopping malls, restaurant and bars will be allowed to open at 50% occupancy. Barber shops, beauty salons and gyms are also allowed to resume operating at 50% occupancy though the governor’s plan “encourages” those businesses to operate by appointment.

Wolf said the state is preparing to relax the restrictions because the state has seen decreasing numbers of people hospitalized, fewer people are testing positive for coronavirus and the state’s capacity for testing has improved.

Over the past two weeks:

-- From May 8, when the first counties moved to yellow, to Thursday, the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized dropped from 2,618 to 1,667.

-- The number of COVID patients on ventilators shrank by about a third, from 505 to 347.

-- New cases continue to decline: From May 8 to May 15, the state added 6,384 cases and from May 15 to 21, added 4,770.

-- The current COVID-19 incidence rate in the state is 83.4 cases per 100,000 people. Two weeks ago, it was 113.6 per 100,000.

“Pennsylvania is one of just 19 states with new case-rate declines,” Wolf said. “We have sustained this decline even as we reopen businesses.”

In the yellow phase, gatherings of more than 25 people are prohibited. And even in the green phase regions, the state’s reopening strategy indicates that “large recreational gatherings” are not allowed.

“While these counties will see a return to near normalcy, some precautions will continue,” Wolf said, adding that concerts, festivals and sporting events “will continue to be restricted.”

Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said that the state will provide additional guidance next week about the limits of crowd sizes, but the state is allowing local school officials to determine if holding high school graduations is appropriate.

“Each school will have to make its own decision,” she said.

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