Pennsylvania coronavirus presser

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announces the first two confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the state on March 6, 2020.

(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said he will lift coronavirus pandemic restrictions in the state’s northern counties on May 8 – so long as diagnosed cases hold below 50 per 100,000 residents.

Wolf revealed the new metric during a news conference with Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine that detailed more of the administration’s phased economic reopening plan first teased last week.

“Many people are still getting sick, but the current pace is allowing every patient to get the medical treatment they need,” Wolf said.”You all have done so much to step up and avert what could have been a much, much worse tragedy.”

Nearly 36,000 residents have tested positive for COVID-19 over the last seven weeks, and 1,662 have died. The majority of patients reside in the state’s southeastern and northeastern counties, along the New Jersey border. Significant outbreaks have also cropped up around Pittsburgh and in the south-central region of the state. 

But for rural, more sparsely populated counties to the north and west, Wolf and Levine said the virus isn’t spreading as fast and far, making the areas good candidates to progress from phase red to phase yellow of the reopening plan. 

“I’m attempting to provide as much certainty as I can even though the virus ultimately controls the calendar for each and every one of us,” Wolf said. “We are trying to look at Pennsylvania as it really it is – not as one monolithic thing."

In the yellow phase, public schools will remain closed and large gatherings will still be banned, but day cares will resume operations and retail stores can open with precautions. Residents must still wear masks and follow mandated social distancing guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A region must keep case counts at a level of no more than 50 per 100,000 residents for 14 days before progressing from red to yellow, Wolf said.

The green phase comes with a return to normal economic activity and public school openings, but will still require universal masking and social distancing. Wolf said the administration will set target dates for each region based on incoming data and reserves the right to change its position if the outbreak worsens.

"So, we will be rolling this out May 8," he said. "Just as we closed down in a phased way, we will open up in phases.”

Construction sties will also open back up May 1, he added.

House Republicans' leadership team praised the governor’s plan in joint statements Wednesday night, saying they were ready to work with the administration to rebuild the economy. House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, credited the chamber’s lobbying for construction with changing the governor’s mind.

“The successful advancement of House Republican legislation to permit safe economic activity under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines made tonight’s announcement by Gov. Wolf possible,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, and President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, also lauded the administration’s decision to reopen in certain counties. 

“We need an approach to reopening Pennsylvania that is driven by the understanding of how differently this virus has affected our communities,” Corman said. "We have repeatedly called for the Governor to set a reasonable approach to allow employers to safely bring people back to work. This was a step toward achieving that. It is our hope that in the coming days the Governor provides more information to the process he outlined tonight.” 

“Every area of our Commonwealth has been impacted differently by COVID-19,” Scarnati added. “Emporium is not Manhattan and Brookville is not Philadelphia. Counties that have seen an extremely minimal number of cases should not be forced to remain in lockdown until next month. An earlier timeframe for rural employers and employees should be put in place, so they have the option to begin safely returning to work now.”

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.