PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - Gov. Tom Wolf has announced that no counties in the Pittsburgh area will be reopening on May 8, even if it appears the coronavirus cases in Allegheny County and the southwest region have been below the threshold.
On Friday, Gov. Wolf released which 24 counties in the rural northern part of the state will reopen come May 8.
The counties included in Wolf's announcement are: Bradford, Cameron, Centre, Clarion, Clearfield, Clinton, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, Lycoming, McKean, Mercer, Montour, Northumberland, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Union, Venango and Warren.
These counties will move from the "red" phase into a "yellow" phase, where the stay-at-home order is lifted but some "aggressive mitigation" strategies -- like teleworking, restrictions on large gatherings and no dine-out at restaurants -- are still in place.
As KDKA has reported, our region appears to have met the governor's metric of having less than 50 new COVID-19 cases a day per 100,000 residents over a 14-day span. And the region's hospital system has never been stressed.
Still, Gov. Wolf said he has other concerns about our southwestern counties and indicated that more testing and contact tracing is needed to identify, isolate and contain any flare-ups.
"We're going to be opening facilities in these counties as quickly as we can but we want to maintain public safety," said Gov. Wolf.
When asked why the southwestern part of the state would not open, Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine cited population density as a concern.
"As the governor has emphasized, we're taking a very careful, measured approach to ensuring Pennsylvanians can resume work and their normal routines -- or more normal routines -- very safely," said Dr. Levine at a Friday press conference. "The southwest region is not yet moving from red to yellow because, particularly in Allegheny County and Pittsburgh, because of population density."
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Dr. Levine says the Pennsylvania Department of Health has learned from modeling and experts that population density is one of the main factors that can lead to a significant spread of the virus. She points towards New York City as an example.
"We felt it prudent that, looking at all the different data and all the metrics, but then taking into consideration our ability to work with counties in terms of contact tracing and testing, and the population density of Allegheny County and Pittsburgh, that it was not prudent to go from red to yellow at this time. But we are hoping to do that in the future," said Dr. Levine.
KDKA's Andy Sheehan: "This would be disappointing news."
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald: "Yes, slightly. But not all that surprising."
Fitzgerald is optimistic the county will soon be moving into the so-called yellow phase, where the stay-at-home order is lifted, stores and offices can reopen and childcare operations can resume.
"It looks like we will be next," he says. "And I'm hopeful that if we keep our numbers where we are and we continue the mitigating strategies that we've done, that the week after the eighth, which will be the 14th, southwestern Pennsylvania will be next."
When asked if there will be weekly announcements of lifted restrictions, Gov. Tom Wolf says that hasn't been decided.
"We haven't talked about the frequency of the updates. I'm trying to keep people safe. We'll go as fast in this process as we can. We're teaching ourselves how to ride a two-wheel bicycle, and the faster we can learn, the faster we can get beyond the yellow and into the green phase," says Gov. Wolf.
However, he does acknowledge the progress the southwest region has made in flattening the curve.
"We're already looking at other counties to move from red to yellow," says Gov. Tom Wolf. "In particular, we have our eyes on counties in the southwest and a few in the south-central regions that have lower new case rates, but where we have a few concerns."
Leaders in Armstrong and Butler counties regions have asked Gov. Wolf not to include them with the Pittsburgh area. Gov. Wolf says the reopening won't go by the health department's definition of regions, but rather on a county-by-county basis.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald issued a statement, saying in full:
"Today's announcement by Governor Wolf that Allegheny County will remain in the red phase was not surprising. While we have done extremely well, we also recognize that the counties which will be moving to the yellow phase have better numbers. I'm also encouraged by the fact that the Governor said that southwest Pennsylvania is close and hopeful that we will move to yellow in the next announcement.
"We can't do that unless we stay vigilant and continue to follow the guidance put forth by our health professionals. We will continue to work with our healthcare providers and systems to increase testing, maintain our contact tracing and case investigation, move promptly to address outbreaks and issues, and work closely with all of our residents and businesses to be certain that we are ready to move forward.
"I know that residents and businesses would have liked to have seen us included in today's announcement. I will continue to talk and work with the Governor and his administration and advocate for the opening of additional businesses that are following CDC guidance in their operations. And I encourage those businesses to take this opportunity to figure out what this new normal looks like for them and what changes they may need to put in place to ensure the safety of their employees and customers.
"Thank you for doing all of the things that we have been asked to do, but we need to continue doing those things until there is a treatment or a vaccine for this virus. It remains my hope that we will get the okay to move forward and when we do, we will be ready. As I've said all along, this is a marathon, not a sprint."
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