Gov. Tom Wolf will announce Friday that more counties can see some of his tightest pandemic restrictions lifted, as counties and lawmakers kept up pressure on him to ease up on his orders.
In a telephone news conference Thursday with reporters, Wolf said he will make his decision on Friday morning. However, he has not changed his criteria for deciding which counties can emerge from his stay-at-home order and his order for non-life-sustaining businesses to close, he said.
His health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, echoed that, saying that the administration will continue to count cases in prisons, factories, nursing homes and other large settings prone to outbreaks against a county's total.
That is bad news for counties such as Beaver and Huntingdon that blame much of their outbreak on a single institution, like a prison or nursing home, and remain under the governor's tightest restrictions.
“We are bending the curve, we are having some success and that is reflected in over half the counties that, as of tomorrow, will be open, and there will be more coming,” Wolf told reporters.
Critics, primarily Republicans, contend that Wolf has changed his goals over time, and say his shutdown orders are inflicting undue suffering and are no longer warranted. He has met his original goal of ensuring that hospitals did not become overwhelmed by a surge in extremely ill coronavirus patients, they say.
Instead, they say, Wolf's focus on a broad shutdown is misplaced, since nursing homes and personal care homes for the elderly account for two-thirds of the state's more than 4,200 reported coronavirus deaths. In a growing chorus, Republicans and Democrats alike cite the opinions of doctors at health systems in Pennsylvania who say the economy can safely reopen and co-exist with the virus.
Wolf agreed that Pennsylvania is “in a better place now." But, he said, he still has concerns with the availability of personal protective equipment and hospital capacity in some areas, and he still wants to see a flatter curve.
Wolf allowed 24 counties in northern Pennsylvania last week to emerge from his tightest restrictions and another 13 counties in western Pennsylvania to emerge starting Friday. That leaves another 30 counties, primarily in hard-hit eastern Pennsylvania, that are home to two-thirds of the state's 12.8 million people.
Nine counties that remain under Wolf's tightest restrictions meet one of his criteria of no more than 50 cases per 100,000 residents over the past 14 days. That includes York County, the state's eighth-most populous.
At least seven other Republican-controlled counties, including Beaver, Huntingdon and Lancaster, the state's seventh-most populous, have signaled that they will defy Wolf's orders starting Friday.
Many of them say Wolf's administration has been opaque in how it is making decisions and, on their own, they will consider at least some of Wolf's restrictions lifted for businesses that can adhere to state or federal health safety guidelines.
With political tensions boiling, Wolf has reached out to county commissioners this week after he suggested Monday that politicians encouraging people to defy his orders and "quit the fight are acting in a most cowardly way.” He also threatened to withhold aid from counties that defy his orders.
In the meantime, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill on a party-line vote that, among other things, strips the state of the authority to close businesses during a disaster emergency. Rather, it forces the state to follow federal guidelines, but also let counties select businesses to remain open.
Wolf will veto it, his office said.
In other coronavirus-related developments Thursday in Pennsylvania:
A half-dozen Republican state lawmakers came to the defense of a barber, Brad Shepler, who has reopened his doors, despite barbers and hair salons being under Wolf's statewide orders to remain closed.
Shepler received a visit from police and a letter from the state's licensing agency warning that he is violating Wolf's order.
At a news conference attended by Shepler and dozens of his supporters outside his barber shop in Enola, a few miles from the state Capitol, the lawmakers said Shepler should be allowed to work to feed his family, not threatened with closure.
“Folks, that is not the America our founding fathers dreamed of," state Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, told the crowd.
For his part, Shepler said people who come to his barber shop do so voluntarily, and he doesn't want anyone to take a risk that they are not comfortable with.
“They all exercise their freedom to choose," Shepler said. “All I ask is that you respect my rights as I respect yours.”
On Thursday, the state House passed legislation to force Wolf to allow barbers, hair salons, realtors, car dealers, garden centers, animal grooming services, manufacturers and messenger services to reopen.
Wolf will veto the bills, his office said.
Around the state, a growing number of gyms, barbers, hair salons and restaurants have defied Wolf's orders to stay closed, despite the threat of losing a business license or certificate.
Asked about it, Wolf said the state has an obligation to certify to customers that those businesses are operating safely.
“How can the state be relied upon to do that or be trusted to do that if we're going to turn a blind eye to that kind of thing?” Wolf said.
Confirmed cases of the coronavirus surpassed 63,000 in Pennsylvania, the state Department of Health reported Thursday.
The department reported 275 additional coronavirus deaths, with 44 of them newly recorded and the rest the result of an ongoing reconciliation of its own records with those of local agencies, hospitals and others over the past several weeks. Philadelphia has surpassed 1,000 deaths alone, officials there said Thursday.
Health officials also reported 938 new infections.
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 with the virus without feeling sick. There is no data on how many people have fully recovered.
Associated Press reporter Claudia Lauer in Philadelphia contributed to this report.