Another 2.6 million people across western Pennsylvania began to emerge from lockdown Friday as Gov. Tom Wolf announced that 12 more counties soon would join them in a partial easing of pandemic restrictions.
Wolf said Adams, Beaver, Carbon, Columbia, Cumberland, Juniata, Mifflin, Perry, Susquehanna, Wyoming, Wayne and York will be the next batch of counties moving to the "yellow" phase of his reopening plan, effective May 22.
They'll join residents of 13 lightly impacted counties — including the cities of Pittsburgh, Johnstown and Altoona — where Wolf lifted his stay-at-home orders on Friday and gave permission for retailers and other types of businesses to reopen. Twenty-four counties across northern Pennsylvania were the first to see a partial reopening last week.
All told, by the end of next week, more than 40% of Pennsylvania's population in 49 counties will have seen an easing of pandemic restrictions that were intended to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.
The state's efforts to contain a virus outbreak that has sickened over 60,000 and killed more than 4,300 statewide have cratered the Pennsylvania economy, and Wolf is under pressure from Republican and Democratic county officeholders alike to reopen more quickly. Some GOP-controlled counties have threatened to lift restrictions on their own — without Wolf's blessing — bringing threats of retaliation from the Democratic governor.
In the counties where Wolf has lifted restrictions, people are now permitted to gather in groups of up to 25, although larger crowds remain prohibited. A wide range of retailers, offices and industrial sites can resume operating while observing state and federal health guidelines intended to prevent viral transmission.
However, gyms, barber shops, nail salons, casinos, theaters and other such venues are required to remain closed and other restrictions will remain in place, including a ban on youth sports.
Additionally, bars and restaurants may still offer only delivery or takeout service, although a major trade association is urging Wolf to begin allowing them to add seated dine-in service.
A handful of gyms, barbers, hair salons and restaurants have opened against the governor's orders, saying they can operate safely. Wolf has said they are risking their business licenses and other governmental approvals to operate.
Pennsylvania, which borders hard-hit New York and New Jersey, has about the 10th highest rate of coronavirus infection nationally, according to federal statistics.
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.
Wolf addressed the residents of the 18 counties still in the "red" phase during his news conference Friday.
"You may feel disappointed or frustrated right now," he said, adding that lockdown actions were taken to prevent tragic situations like in Italy, where hospitals were overwhelmed and did not have enough ventilators for patients. And he knows residents might feel cooped up inside.
“Time has worn us down. We want to be with other people. We want to feel productive. We want to go to work. To the store. We want to see our friends. And with each passing day it becomes harder and harder to stay home," he said. "It’s easy to look outside, see a beautiful spring day and think, ‘Hey, there’s no danger.’ But the danger’s there, it’s real. And we need to take that seriously."
Nearer to Philadelphia, and absent from the slate of counties announced for reopening Friday, is Lancaster County. The county is between York County, which is reopening, and Chester County, part of the southeast region that officials have said will be "among the last" to reopen.
Leaders in the Lancaster area - including nine state legislators and a Congressman - had pushed Wolf to move the county to the "yellow" phase by Friday, mentioning an "ample supply" of hospital beds and ventilators not in use.
Wolf said moving from the red phase to yellow is not just about case counts, but the risk of spread if restrictions were lifted.
“It’s also about how people in our communities move about. How they interact," he said. "It’s about the amount of close quarters and shared touch points. It’s about the likelihood that one case will become 100 cases.”
The governor also was asked about an anti-shutdown protest of about 2,000 people - many in Trump gear, and few in masks - on the steps of the Capitol in Harrisburg.
“I just hope that all the folks, wherever they are and however they’re expressing themselves, are doing so in a way that helps keep other people safe,” Wolf said.
The Lancaster-area politicians claimed residents' "patience is waning" to stay locked down much longer.
About 2 million Pennsylvania residents have lost their jobs since mid-March. Food and milk giveaways draw long lines. Some people have gone two months without money because of the state's problem-plagued online unemployment benefits portal.
Many local officials cite the opinions of doctors at their area health systems in Pennsylvania who say the economy can safely reopen and co-exist with the virus. _
Associated Press reporter Michael Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak