Thirteen counties in southwestern Pennsylvania will start reopening on May 15, Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday, as the Keystone State takes continued steps toward moving out of a COVID-19 lockdown that’s stretched two months.
Starting at 12:01 a.m. next Friday, Allegheny, Armstrong, Bedford, Blair, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Fulton, Greene, Indiana, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties will move from the red phase to the yellow phase in the administration’s color-coded reopening process.
They join the 24 counties in north-central and northwestern Pennsylvania that moved into the yellow phase of the governor’s tiered reopening on Friday. With Wolf’s announcement, 37 of the state’s 67 counties are now in the yellow zone.
But at an online news briefing, the Democratic governor urged continued caution.
“Every contact between two people is a new link in the chain of potential transmission,” Wolf said.
The announcement comes a day after the administration announced it was extending stay at home orders for the counties still in the “red zone” until June 4. Asked why he picked that date, Wolf said “We thought another month would make the most sense.”
Regional politicians were glad to see the news, issuing statements praising constituents for their efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
U.S. Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District, issued a statement responding to Wolf’s announcement, saying he was glad to see more counties coming out of the red phrase. He also reminded constituents that the struggle with the virus is far from over.
“As counties begin to reopen, we must remember that lifting a stay-at-home order does not end the threat of the coronavirus,” he said. “It is important that we continue taking precautions to protect the most vulnerable among us.”
State Rep. Joseph Petrarca, D-Westmoreland, also supports the move.
“Today’s news means that many businesses can reopen their doors and follow the health and social distancing guidelines to ensure we continue to move forward in the pandemic recovery process,” he said in a statement.
State Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Allegheny, said in a statement residents still have to remain vigilant and follow good practices so the region can move to green.
“The data is clear that the collective sacrifices we’ve made have led us to this moment,” Readshaw said.
As of Friday, 54,238 people have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Department of Health. 3,616 people have died. The state has seen 8,475 new cases since May 1.
Many of the questions the governor faced during his conference on Friday were about the frustrations of those still in the red phase.
“I understand the frustration, as a former business-owner,” Wolf said. “The enemy is the virus, not the regulation.“
Wolf was asked about Beaver County’s District Attorney saying he wouldn’t prosecute businesses that defied the stay-at-home order.
“If they go ahead and do that, they’re taking a chance with the lives of residents and the citizens of Beaver County,” Wolf said. “I would be a little careful in doing that.”
Joyce said he would like to see more transparency from Wolf with regard to how the administration is making its decisions.
“The Pennsylvanians who remain under a stay-at-home order, including the residents of Adams, Cumberland, Franklin, and Huntingdon Counties, deserve to know why they cannot re-open,” his statement said.
Neither Wolf nor state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine would go into the specifics of what metrics they’re using Friday, other than to say they’re looking at several numbers, looking at them regularly, and working with experts at Carnegie Mellon University.
Wolf was also asked about businesses in northeastern Pennsylvania possibly defying the stay-at-home order.
He reiterated his belief that those decisions could endanger people’s lives.
“The way to resolve that situation is not by putting people in harm’s way,“ Wolf said.
When asked what punishments people could face if they defied the order, he responded by talking about the risks they’re adding to the situation.
Four southwestern counties – Butler, Fayette, Greene and Washington – have filed a lawsuit, saying the governor and Levine have infringed on their constitutional rights with the shutdown.
It is not the first lawsuit filed dealing with the shutdown.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to lift the Governor’s March 19 executive order that closed businesses.
Correspondent Patrick Abdalla covers northeastern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star