COVID-19 Update, May 1: Wolf to start reopening in 22 counties; Chester likely to among last to open

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times @mikemcgannpa

Gov. Tom Wolf began the slow process of reopening the state Friday by saying 22 counties will shift from from fully closed — or red status — to partially open — or yellow status — on next Friday, May 8.

The 24 counties that will move from red to yellow on May 8 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.

“Over the past two months, Pennsylvanians in every corner of our commonwealth have acted collectively to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Gov. Wolf said. “We have seen our new case numbers stabilize statewide and while we still have areas where outbreaks are occurring, we also have many areas that have few or no new cases.”

Wolf said these counties were deemed ready to move to a reopening – or yellow phase – because of low per-capita case counts, the ability to conduct contact tracing and testing, and appropriate population density to contain community spread.

The 22 counties will still have restrictions, but the Stay At Home order will be lifted.

Work & Congregate Setting Restrictions

 Telework Must Continue Where Feasible

 Businesses with In-Person Operations Must Follow Business and Building Safety Orders

 Child Care Open Complying with Guidance

 Congregate Care and Prison Restrictions in Place

 Schools Remain Closed for In-Person Instruction

Social Restrictions

 Stay at Home Order Lifted for Aggressive Mitigation

 Large Gatherings of More than 25 Prohibited

 In-Person Retail Allowable, Curbside and Delivery Preferable

 Indoor Recreation, Health and Wellness Facilities and Personal Care Services (such as gyms, spas, hair salons, nail salons and other entities that provide massage therapy), and all Entertainment (such as casinos, theaters) Remain Closed

 Restaurants and Bars Limited to Carry-Out and Delivery Only

 All businesses not specifically mentioned as restricted from reopening may reopen if they follow the forthcoming guidance.

55 counties, including Chester, remain under the “Red” restrictions, including a full Stay At Home Order. Chester County is expected to be among the last counties allowed to open, as the southeast portion of the state has been a COVID-19 hotspot and has a higher population density than the counties that will open next week.

Meanwhile, new COVID-19 cases in the state continue the fluctuate in a narrow band — even as some sectors, such as construction, opened up Friday; meanwhile the financial hit for the state became clear, as tax collections dropped by nearly half for April, seeing a decline of $2.2 billion in revenue.

The state Department of Health (DOH) said Friday, 1,208 additional positive cases of COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to 46,971.

Additionally, the department reported 62 new deaths, bringing the statewide total to 2,354 in Pennsylvania.

“As we see the number of new COVID-19 cases continuously change across the state that does not mean we can stop practicing social distancing,” Sec. of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said in a press release using the exact same quote for the eighth straight day.. “We must continue to stay home to protect ourselves, our families and our community. If you must go out, please make as few trips as possible and wear a mask to protect not only yourself, but others. We need all Pennsylvanians to continue to heed these efforts to protect our vulnerable Pennsylvanians, our health care workers and frontline responders.”

In Chester County, County health reported 58 new cases, down slightly from the day before, for a total of 1,470 cases county-wide. One death was reported, bringing the county death toll to 112.

While the health issues continue to be a concern, the fiscal issues are beginning to become evident for state government. Pennsylvania collected $2.2 billion in General Fund revenue in April, which was $2.2 billion, or 49.7 percent, less than anticipated, Revenue Secretary Dan Hassell reported today. Fiscal year-to-date General Fund collections total $27.5 billion, which is $2.2 billion, or 7.4 percent, below estimate.

“As we anticipated, there is a significant revenue shortfall this month when we compare collections to our original estimate. That’s mainly because we have extended several tax deadlines to provide relief to Pennsylvania taxpayers during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Secretary Hassell said. “Extending these due dates, including the traditional April 15th deadline for filing Pennsylvania personal income tax returns and making income tax payments, means that we expect to receive much of this revenue later in the year. That is an important fact to keep in mind when analyzing the fiscal impact of the pandemic on our revenue collections.”

It is likely some of the shortfall will be made up with deferred payments coming in later in the year. The department estimates that approximately $1.7 billion of the $2.2 billion shortfall in April can be attributed to moving due dates for various taxes. It is expected the majority of the $1.7 billion will be made up when those tax payments occur in the next fiscal year. An additional $395.3 million of the April shortfall is due to reduced economic activity during the pandemic.

Also, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Thursday that nearly $324 million in funding has been awarded to 31 hospitals across the commonwealth through the Hospital Emergency Loan Program, or HELP, which provides short-term financial relief as hospitals combat the surge of COVID-19 cases in their area.

“As Pennsylvania continues to practice social distancing, we have successfully flattened the curve, but we know that our fight against COVID-19 is far from over,” said Gov. Wolf. “This funding will allow our hospitals to hold steady in that fight with the peace of mind that they have access to the resources they need to provide critical care to their communities.”

A list of approved hospitals can be found here.

The loan package was made available to the commonwealth’s hospitals to provide immediate financial support for working capital to ensure that these facilities have sufficient personnel, equipment, and personal protective equipment.

The funding was dispersed by the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (PENNVEST) and is being administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) through the Pennsylvania First Program (PA First).

“Our number one priority is protecting the health and well-being of Pennsylvanians, and that priority extends from the home to the hospitals,” Gov. Wolf said. “By distributing this emergency funding to our commonwealth’s health care system, we are safeguarding our hospitals working hard to combat this virus.”

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law on March 27, 2020, with the goal of easing the financial strain of the pandemic and smoothing the transition back into regular health care operation.

Pennsylvania health care facilities licensed as hospitals by the Pennsylvania Department of Health under the Health Care Facilities Act of 1979 that are eligible to receive federal grant funding through the CARES Act are eligible for HELP.

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