PHILADELPHIA - Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf on Thursday addressed questions about his administration's plan to reopen the state amid reported signs of coronavirus stabilization in some regions.
The second-term democrat emphasized the need to take a staggered approach in reopening the state, admitting that some less populated areas are likely to open sooner than dense areas.
Residents of northcentral and northwestern Pennsylvania are projected to be the first in the state to be released from Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home order, and many retail stores in those areas should be able to reopen, under a statewide plan announced Wednesday night.
Wolf wants to begin easing some pandemic restrictions on May 8 in areas of Pennsylvania that have been lightly impacted by the new coronavirus.
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Philadelphia, which surpassed 10,000 virus cases on Thursday, is not among the areas eligible for an early May reopening.
"The goal here is to keep people safe, not to impose unnecessary restrictions on people’s freedom of movement," Wolf said. "Pennsylvania is big enough that we can do it by area, the same way as we closed the state."
Erie County, which lies on the state's far northwest side, is a candidate to be among the first counties phased into reopening. With a population of nearly 270,000 people, Eries currently has just 68 cases with no reported deaths.
Wolf hesitated to make a decision on Erie despite its low infection rate. He described the county's relatively close proximity to major cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo as "tinder" warning a reopening might attract people to Erie.
"Erie county might have low infection numbers, but it is located near major population centers," Wolf said. "There is tinder smoldering all around us, a spark from that tinder can ignite an otherwise safe area."
Wolf's comments on Erie highlight a statewide concern that officials are still working to flesh out. Residents from phase-1 counties jumping to phase 2 or 3 counties could thwart mitigation efforts.
"If once a quiet place becomes a hot spot for whatever reason, we will recognize reopening it was a mistake, and we will get back to a much more disciplined approach," Wolf said.
The governor said under his plan, counties are sensitive to reopening too soon and reserve the right to re-shutter.
But the case count isn’t the only metric, officials said Thursday. The availability of diagnostic testing, the capacity of the health care system and the ability to quickly identify and contain flareups through what’s known as contact tracing will also play a role.
A manageable number of new virus infections each day will be “very important, it’s something we can measure and put down on paper, but it’s not the only measure that we’re going to be looking at,” said the state health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine.
To decide when to move to a new phase, the administration will use the Department of Health metrics and a data tool developed by Carnegie Mellon University. The full plan is available here.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
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