Erie among 24 counties reopening on Friday: Here’s how the locals are getting ready

A view of the Bicentennial Tower in Erie, Pa. (Photo via Flickr Commons)

ERIE, Pa. — On Friday, Erie County, along with 23 other Pennsylvania counties, will move into the “yellow phase” of COVID-19 mitigation. Here’s a look at what that’s going to mean — and how local officials and business leaders are preparing for it.

Casinos, gyms and theaters will remain closed, while stay-at-home orders are lifted and in-person retail shopping continues. Restaurants will still be limited to curbside and delivery service. 

Gov. Tom Wolf announced last week that Erie County would be in the initial round of re-openings. In the yellow phase, social and work restrictions will wane. 

With reopening just days away, “Many businesses have concerns,” Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper said Wednesday. “We are getting inundated with calls.”

The Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership has spent the last two weeks surveying local businesses about their preparedness as reopening day approaches on Friday, its president and CEO, James Grunke, told the Capital-Star. 

“We asked them really three basic questions,” Grunke said. “If you were allowed to open, could you? Could you comply? And about half said yes, and about half said no.”

“And then we say well, if no, why? And part of it is [businesses] have physical barriers that would prevent [adhering to] some of the guidance.” Other businesses said they are unsure of what the guidance actually is, Grunke said. And finally, businesses wonder if customers will have enough confidence to return to the businesses. 

“And so that’s really I think what they’re struggling with … what steps do you need to be taking to reopen on Friday,” Grunke told the Capital-Star.

The distinction of what can be open in this phase is mostly based on guidance released by Wolf’s office on Monday. 

The main points of the yellow phase in Wolf’s plan to reopen Pennsylvania are: 

  • Where possible, telework must continue. 
  • Schools remain closed. 
  • Child care is open in compliance with guidance. 
  • Indoor recreation and health and wellness facilities (such as salons, spas, gyms, etc.) remain closed as well as entertainment businesses such as theaters. 

In the yellow phase, the stay-at-home order is lifted, but social gatherings of more than 25 persons are still prohibited. 

Included in the administration’s guidance is “specific information on cleaning and disinfecting premises, limiting the number of employees in common areas and customers on premises, providing masks and sanitizing supplies for employees, installing shields or other barriers at registers and checkout areas to physically separate cashiers and customers, and creating a plan in case a business is exposed to a probable or confirmed case of COVID-19,” according to a written statement made Monday.

“Governor Wolf’s office released guidance [Monday] evening, but we still … have a lot of questions,” Dahlkemper said Tuesday. “So the environmental team has compiled a list of those questions, sent it on to the state to get some better guidance.” 

Some questions the county still has are in regards to summer camps, recreational sport leagues, and guidelines on garage sales Dahlkemper told the Capital-Star, Wednesday. 

“It’s really about some specifics around different things that people are calling us with, and there’s just a multitude of questions that are coming in, and we continue to try to get clarification,” Dahlkemper said.

During an online news briefing Tuesday, state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said revised fatality counts in projections compiled by the University of Washington underlined the need to move slowly.

As of midday Wednesday, Pennsylvania had logged 3,106 confirmed fatalities from the pandemic, according to Health Department data. The university’s widely consulted model shows 8,607 fatalities through August

Moving to the yellow phase with Erie on Friday are: Bradford, Cameron, Centre, Clarion, Clearfield, Clinton, Crawford, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, Lycoming, McKean, Mercer, Montour, Nothumberland, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Union, Venango and Warren County. 

“These counties were deemed ready to move to a reopening — or yellow phase — because of low per-capita case counts, the ability to conduct contact tracing and testing, and appropriate population density to contain community spread,” Wolf said in a written statement on May 1. 

Of the counties reopening this week, Erie County — home to nearly 300,000 Pennsylvanians — is the largest county by population with nearly 115,000 more residents than the next largest (Centre County). 

None of the counties moving to the yellow phase have seen more than three COVID-19 deaths as of May 5. 

“I’d like to remind everyone that our goal is not to hammer down on businesses, but really to have a helping hand for our businesses,” Dahlkemper said when discussing guidelines for reopening Erie County. 

“We are treading uncharted territory together,” Dahlkemper said. “We all want to reopen Erie County as quickly, as efficiently as possible. But our number one priority is the health and safety of our community.”