All counties still in Gov. Tom Wolf’s (D) “red” lockdown phase will move into the “yellow” hybrid phase of economic reopening in two weeks, including all four of the Delaware Valley counties around Philadelphia.
The move will result in the most significant reopening of economic activity in the Delaware Valley since the governor issued his sweeping statewide shutdown order on March 16 in response to the coronavirus pandemic — a total shutdown lasting 81 days.
Wolf’s stoplight-colored reopening system has been applied on a county-by-county basis, provided certain benchmarks were met. As of Friday, 12 additional counties in the state were scheduled to move into the yellow phase, bringing the total to 49. All of the counties remaining in red were concentrated in the southeast.
However, complaints from Delaware Valley counties may have played an important role in Wolf’s decision to move the entire state out of the red zone.
In recent weeks, Bucks and Delaware counties had publicly complained to the governor that one of his key metrics — where a county must have less than ‘50 new cases per 100,000 people over a 14-day period’ — was unrealistic and unobtainable.
Then earlier this week, Chester County joined the fray, publishing a letter to their citizens and to Gov. Wolf.
“Honestly, we don’t think this is a very good metric,” the Chester County board of commissioners said. “At nearly 525,000 people, Chester County has a population density that makes achieving this number very difficult. We have been fighting hard to use metrics that make better sense, given our demographics.”
None of the four Delaware Valley counties were close to meeting the ’50 new cases’ metric.
All four of the counties have Democratic majorities on the county board, and only Montgomery County did not publicly appeal for more leeway from the governor for a faster reopening.
Just one day earlier, a spokeswoman for Wolf reiterated to Delaware Valley Journal that reopening decisions were held to certain standards.
“Political affiliations have no influence on reopening,” Wolf’s spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger said. “As outlined in the plan, the approach is data driven and reliant upon quantifiable criteria to drive a targeted, evidence-based approach to reopenings in Pennsylvania.”
After announcing all counties would be out of red by June 5, Wolf denied he was responding to public pressure in moving away from the metric.
“As I’ve said, we’ve never used that metric exclusively, we never did,” Wolf said. “And as we know more and have more ability to test this disease, we have broadened the number of things that we look at.”
Chester County appeared to take some credit for Wolf’s move, saying, “we are pleased that the Governor has responded to our appeal to relax restrictions in Chester County.”
“It is our goal that Chester County will move to the green phase no later than the end of June,” the commissioners also said in a release.
The Wolf administration was also reckoning with a nonstop barrage of piecemeal legislation efforts by Republicans attempting to open up the economy one industry at a time, sometimes regardless of county.
And the GOP was battling Wolf in larger ways, too
Thursday, a resolution passed out of a house committee chaired by Rep. Steve Barrar (R-Chester/Delaware), that would “terminate the COVID-19 Disaster Emergency, if the need arises.”
Barrar was cautiously optimistic upon hearing the news all counties would be out of the “red zone” in two weeks, but is also eyeing an even wider reopening.
“I think this is a good first step and gives our constituents a light at the end of the tunnel,” he told Delaware Valley Journal. “But it certainly is not enough to save our economy. We need to open a lot more than this provides for.”
In a Thursday news conference, Bucks County commissioners knew that on the following day Wolf would announce a new slate of counties set to move to yellow. All three repeatedly said they were “hopeful” and “optimistic” that the county would be included.
The gradual reopening on June 4 for all the remaining counties will come two days after the statewide primary election.
“In the yellow phase, limitations on public gatherings remain, and restaurants and bars remain closed to in-person business,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “Gyms, salons, malls, and movie theaters also remain closed.”
Some counties in the valley have consolidated polling places, while both Republicans and Democrats have been urging their voters to take advantage of new, less restrictive regulations on voting by mail.