HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday he is easing some pandemic restrictions in Philadelphia and the heavily populated suburbs on June 5, while lifting them almost entirely in 17 rural counties next week as Pennsylvania continues to emerge from a shutdown imposed nearly two months ago to help slow the spread of the new virus.
Wolf is accelerating his reopening plan even though more than 20 Pennsylvania counties remain above the state’s target for new infections that were supposed to qualify them for an easing of pandemic restrictions — and eight counties are more than three times over.
Local elected officials, Republican and Democrats alike, have been pressing for shutdown relief amid skyrocketing unemployment, as have small business owners who are struggling to keep afloat.
Wolf is taking action amid a partisan blame game over whether governors or the president is responsible for the economic wreckage. That fight could have enormous implications in the November election in this presidential battleground state.
The Democratic governor is moving several eastern counties, including Philadelphia, to “yellow” on June 5, meaning that people will be able to freely leave their homes and retailers and other kinds of businesses will be allowed to reopen, though other restrictions remain.
Eight counties are moving to yellow a week earlier, on May 29: Dauphin, Franklin, Huntingdon, Lebanon, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike and Schuylkill.
Wolf also announced the first batch of counties moving to “green,” the least restrictive phase of his reopening plan: Bradford, Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Montour, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Venango and Warren. All of them are lightly populated counties across a northern swath of the state.
Health officials have said they were working on specific guidelines for counties in the green phase.
In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania on Friday:
SOME EVICTIONS ALLOWED
The Wolf administration is loosening its ban on foreclosures and evictions.
A tenant who damages property, breaks the law or breaches the lease in some other way can now be evicted under a modified executive order issued by Wolf on Friday.
The temporary ban still applies to evictions and foreclosures for nonpayment or because a tenant has overstayed a lease. The moratorium is scheduled to last until July 10.
“I am protecting housing for Pennsylvanians who may be facing economic challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Wolf said in a written statement. “My order will not affect proceedings for other issues, such as property damage or illegal activity.”
The Wolf administration has been fighting legal action by landlords who say the governor overstepped his authority by imposing a moratorium on evictions. His spokeswoman, Lyndsay Kensinger, said the decision to amend the executive order was considered before the litigation was filed “in consideration of feedback from stakeholders.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Health on Friday reported 115 additional deaths linked to COVID-19, raising the statewide total to 4,984.
Two-thirds of the state’s deaths have been among residents of nursing homes and other facilities that care for older adults.
State health officials also reported that 866 more people have tested positive for the new coronavirus. The state has recorded fewer than 1,000 new cases for 12 consecutive days.
Since early March, infections have been confirmed in more than 66,000 people in Pennsylvania.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher than the state’s confirmed case count because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.