Pennsylvania will gradually reopen its economy using a “regional, sector-based approach” and a modeling tool that will help public officials decide when it's safe, according to a plan outlined Friday by Gov. Tom Wolf.
The plan offered few details. It does not include a timetable or spell out the metrics that Wolf and his administration will use to decide that Pennsylvania can begin emerging from the coronavirus pandemic after weeks of social distancing.
Wolf called the plan a “framework” and said he would lay out more concrete steps next week.
“There is no magic wand to wave to get us back to where we want to be," said Wolf, unveiling his “Relief, Reopening, Recovery” plan at a video news conference Friday afternoon.
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“Unfortunately, we cannot flip a switch and reopen the commonwealth. There’s not going to be one big day,” Wolf said. “We need to be smart and make data-driven decisions.”
The Democratic governor has imposed a series of progressively tougher measures in the face of a pandemic state officials say threatened to swamp hospitals and spike the death toll. COVID-19 has sickened nearly 30,000 Pennsylvania residents and killed more than 750.
Wolf shut down businesses deemed “non-life-sustaining,” closed schools through the end of the academic year and ordered all 12.8 million Pennsylvania residents to stay at home unless absolutely necessary. Just this week, the Wolf administration ordered people to wear masks inside supermarkets, pharmacies and other stores.
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State health officials have said the restrictions have worked to slow the rate of infections and prevent hospitals from running out of bed space, ventilators and other supplies.
But the pandemic and Wolf’s business shutdown order have caused economic devastation, throwing at least 1.4 million Pennsylvania residents out of work. Wolf has been under increasing pressure from Republicans, small business owners and others to relax the restrictions. Protesters plan to gather Monday in Harrisburg to demonstrate against the shutdown.
Under Wolf's plan, employers and other organizations that are permitted to reopen will be required to follow guidance from the state Department of Health and other state agencies, and will have to close again if there's a "significant" COVID-19 outbreak.
A “strong testing regime” must be in place in areas that are permitted to reopen, along with a monitoring and surveillance program. And limitations on mass gatherings will remain in place for the duration of the reopening process, according to plan documents.
The state needs to be careful and deliberate about reopening the economy, with the flexibility to respond to new outbreaks, Wolf said. Doing otherwise, he contended, would prolong the crisis.
Wolf’s plan comes a day after President Donald Trump, pressing to restart the ravaged U.S. economy, gave governors a road mapfor economic recovery. The White House guidance said that states should see a “downward trajectory” of documented cases over a 14-day period. Wolf's plan does not mention the two-week metric.
Wolf acknowledged Trump's guidance to the states but said he wanted to have a plan that “respects the reality” on the ground in Pennsylvania.
In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania:
Pennsylvania's unemployment rate zoomed upward in March to its highest point since 2014 as the effects of Wolf's business shutdown and stay-at-home orders began to be felt, according to figures released Friday.
Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate shot up to 6%, up from 4.7% in February, the state Department of Labor and Industry said.
The national rate was 4.4% in March. But unemployment surveys were conducted well before the full force of the shutdowns took effect, resulting in more than 1.4 million Pennsylvanians filing for unemployment benefits since March 15, or nearly one in four workers.
Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate last year hit a nearly two-decade low of 4.1%.
A separate survey of households found Pennsylvania’s civilian labor force fell by 19,000, just a month after hitting a new record above 6.5 million. Employment fell by 104,000, while unemployment rose by 85,000.
A separate survey of employers showed seasonally adjusted nonfarm payrolls fell by 40,000 in March, below 6.1 million after hitting record levels earlier this year. That wiped out eight months of gains.
Hardest hit was the leisure and hospitality sector, off by 17,000. Financial activities grew slightly, the only sector to expand.
Friday’s figures are preliminary and could change.
The COVID-19 death toll rose by 49 to 756, the state Department of Health reported Friday, with more than 1,700 additional people testing positive for the virus.
Statewide, more than 29,400 people have tested positive, according to the latest statistics. More than half of the people infected are 50 or older, while most of the deaths are among people 65 and older.
Nursing homes are bearing the brunt. More than half of the state’s fatalities have occurred in more than 320 nursing and personal-care homes scattered throughout Pennsylvania, according to the department, while more than 3,700 residents of nursing homes and personal care homes and 420 employees have contracted the virus.
Revenues dropped by more than half last month in Pennsylvania’s 12 casinos and other gambling outlets as casinos shut down in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.
Still, online casino gambling remained active and revenue from those outlets crept upward in Pennsylvania, the nation's No. 2 state in commercial casino revenue last year, behind Nevada.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board said casinos brought in $153 million from gambling and fantasy sports betting in March, down 52% from $316 million from the same month a year ago.
Hardest hit was the Wind Creek Bethlehem Casino, dropping 71%. The casino's online slot machine games and table games including poker remain active, and revenue crept upward to $24 million from $19.5 million in February.
Online sports wagering also remains active, although bets fell in March to $131 million from $330 million in February as professional and college sports shut down.
Pennsylvania wasn't alone.
New Jersey’s casino and sports betting revenue fell over 44% from a year ago, Indiana’s casinos took in nearly 55% less from a year ago, Maryland took in nearly 58% less, and Michigan’s casinos netted over 59% less.
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