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Chester County Press

Chester County to ‘go green’ on June 26

06/23/2020 03:26PM ● By Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

That giant jangly sound heard throughout Chester County is the echo of thousands of keys that are about to cautiously but thankfully reopen businesses and facilities, following the recent announcement by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf that the county will move to the green phase of reopening from the COVID-19 pandemic, beginning on June 26.

Chester is among the last wave of counties given the go-ahead to move to the state’s green phase this Friday, joining Berks, Bucks, Delaware, Erie, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia and Susquehanna. The only county in Pennsylvania that is not slated to move to green by June 26 is Lebanon County, who has seen an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases.

Under the state’s green phase, Chester County will be asked to abide by the following guidelines:

Work and Congregate Settings Restrictions

*          Continued telework is strongly encouraged

*          Businesses with in-person operations must follow updated business and building safety requirements

*          All businesses that were operating at 50 percent occupancy in the yellow phase may increase to 75 percent occupancy

*          Child care services may open, providing they comply with guidelines

*          Congregate care restrictions will remain in place

*          Prison and hospital restrictions will continue to be determined by individual facilities

*          Schools will be subject to CDC and commonwealth guidance

Social Restrictions

*          Large gatherings of more than 250 will be prohibited

*          Masks are required when entering a business

*          Restaurants and bars will reopen at 50 percent occupancy

*          Personal care services – such as hair salons and barbershops – will reopen at 50 percent occupancy and by appointment only

*          Indoor recreation, health and wellness facilities and personal care services -- such as gyms and spas – will reopen at 50 percent occupancy with appointments strongly encouraged

*          All entertainment venues – such as casinos, theaters, and shopping malls – will reopen at 50 percent occupancy

*          Construction activity may return to full capacity with continued implementation of protocols

‘A welcome relief’

Area economic directors said that the move from the yellow phase to the green phase, while not intended to completely return the business climate to pre-pandemic scenarios, is nonetheless a much needed stimulant guaranteed to kick start local economies that have been dormant for months.

“I feel that for our member businesses and organizations that can open -- even with restrictions in the green phase -- is a welcome relief,” said Christine Grove, executive director of the Oxford Area Chamber of Commerce. “Our hair salons, barber shops and spas have been completely shuttered since the beginning of the stay at home order.  These business owners are prepared to welcome their clients back, safely. 

“For our members who have creatively managed to instruct students virtually, I think they would like nothing more than to welcome full classes back to dance, karate and art, but the logistics are tricky. I believe some will instruct in smaller groups and others will continue teaching virtually. That is the tough decision that our owners will have to decide.”

While he agrees with Grove that the green phase will help the barber shops, salons and fitness centers that have been closed for the past few months, Historic Kennett Square Economic Development Director Nate Echeverria said that the new phase will also assist a local restaurant industry that has been remaining afloat largely on take-out service.

“Restaurants will also be able to do some indoor dining in the green phase, which is welcomed, but given the six-foot distancing requirements between tables and the impact that has on restaurant occupancy, we still think a focus on outdoor dining will be with us for the foreseeable future,” Echeverria said.

Pa. shows 42-day decline in COVID-19 rates

The news that nearly every county in the commonwealth has – or will soon – move to the green phase dovetails with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recent state-by-state analysis of COVID-19 rates that ranked Pennsylvania as one of only three states – along with Montana and Hawaii – to report a 42-day steady decline in COVID-19 rates.

Gov. Wolf said that the good numbers are a positive indicator that the state’s three-phased reopening plan that sought to balance public health with a measured reopening of the state’s economy has been effective.

“It’s a testament to the many residents and businesses that have sacrificed over the past three months to stay home and adhere to the guidance the state has provided to protect lives and livelihoods,” he said. “As we begin to reopen, I urge everyone to stay alert and continue to follow social distancing to maintain the momentum of mitigation we have in place.

“We know our decline in cases is because of our choices, because more than half of states are experiencing an increase in COVID-19 cases as reopening begins,” he added. “Many of these states are experiencing significant case increases tied to reopening too soon or too much. Pennsylvania is not. We have remained focused on balancing economic interests with public health.”

Data provided by the Chester County Department of Health on June 22 also shows encouraging signs that the rate of COVID-19 is decreasing in the county. According to a chart published on its website, the number of confirmed cases of the virus in the county measured over a 14-day period from June 7 to June 20 was 398, a 32.9 percent decrease from the 593 cases confirmed during the period from May 14 to June 6.

County officials are also expressing a cautious optimism that the county’s arrival in the green phase will provide a much-needed kick start to its economy.

“Chester County is very ready to move to the next level of re-opening, the green phase,” said Chester County Commissioners’ Chair Marian Moskowitz. “Our public health strategies will ensure that businesses and organizations can re-open or expand their operations safely, and that residents can confidently enjoy some of the services that they have been greatly missing.”

The county has also developed created several economic lifelines designed to assist businesses during the pandemic. Its COVID-19 Business Task Force led to the creation of “Restore Chester County,” which includes a web-based toolkit and a series of webinars for businesses, organizations and residents to navigate the guidelines of the Commonwealth’s red, yellow and green phases. 

The County also supplemented federal and state COVID-19 business relief funds with a $5 million Main Street Preservation grant program for small businesses and agricultural enterprises.

Will wearing masks be enough?

While the green phase eases most restrictions by lifting the stay-at-home and business closure orders to allow the economy to strategically reopen while continuing to prioritize public health, some restrictions -- such as mask-wearing -- will remain in place. In recent news releases related to the pandemic, the Wolf Administration continues to stress guidelines that have become burned into nearly everyone’s daily routine:

Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available; cover any coughs or sneezes with your elbow, not your hands; clean surfaces frequently; stay home to avoid spreading COVID-19, especially if you are unwell; and wear a mask if you go out.

“By participating in small actions recommended by the CDC and the Pennsylvania Department of Health, we can continue to break transmission links even while we resume our daily activities,” Wolf said. “Things like washing hands, bringing our own water to sports practice and, of course, wearing masks.”

“’Green’ does not mean ‘Full Throttle Go,’” Moskowitz added. “Just as we have asked throughout the yellow phase, we implore everyone to continue to make every effort to contain the coronavirus.  Wear masks, continue social distancing, work from home if you can and continue all hygiene recommendations.”

While abiding by the calls to continue to wear masks could continue to impact the decreasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in the state, it is as of yet uncertain what kind of impact it will have when a second-wave surge of coronavirus is expected by many experts to arrive in the fall.

As local and state officials prepare to embrace the positives and negatives from Pennsylvania advancing to the green phase, the questions hangs over the commonwealth like an albatross: Will the strict use and enforcement of masks against the backdrop of a state that has now reached the highest stage of reopening be enough to hold back what many experts are predicting will be the next – and larger – wave of the pandemic?

Based on statistical models created by Columbia University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University, the CDC recently forecasted that deaths due to COVID-19 will increase in the following states: Arizona, Arkansas, Hawaii, North Carolina, Utah and Vermont. While the total number of COVID-19-related deaths in the U.S. stood at 120,106 as of June 22, the agency predicted that by July 4, COVID-19-related deaths in the country will exceed 124,000.

From the time the first strains of the pandemic reached southeastern Pennsylvania back in March, the county has answered back with initiatives of its own. It recently became the first county in Pennsylvania to invest in antibody testing, while it also sourced significant levels of personal protection equipment, including three million masks for first responders and healthcare workers.

In February, it activated its Health Operations Center to begin undertaking the biggest public health emergency in modern time.  

“We reached out to our businesses, schools, non-profits, faith-based organizations and congregate care facilities to prepare them for the global pandemic,” said County Commissioner Michelle Kichline. “The communication and support provided to all of these groups played a very big part in Chester County’s preparedness for COVID-19.”

County Commissioner Josh Maxwell noted the work of the Chester County Health Department to monitor and respond to the COVID-19 health crisis.

“The Health Department team will continue to conduct investigations of everyone who has a confirmed-positive COVID-19 test, and they have expanded contact tracing to more quickly and thoroughly notify everyone who is in close contact with those who have tested positive,” Maxwell said. “Finally, we have been increasing access to diagnostic swab testing for anyone who is high risk for COVID, as well as for anyone who may be asymptomatic. Bringing these three things together helps us better understand the presence of COVID-19 and monitor any surge in cases in Chester County.”

On June 18, Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine announced that the state’s Department of Health has applied for a more than $301 million grant from the CDC to fund and support six primary strategies, which will include continuing to develop a testing and contact tracing strategy, supporting local health departments and investing in public health surveillance and laboratory infrastructure.

“With more than half of the state now in the green phase of the process to reopen, it is essential that we continue to take precautions to protect against COVID-19,” Dr. Levine said. “The commonwealth’s careful, measured approach to reopening is working as we see case counts continue to decline even as many other states see increases.

“But the virus has not gone away,” she added. “Each of us has a responsibility to continue to protect ourselves, our loved ones and others by wearing a mask, maintaining social distancing and washing our hands frequently. Together we can protect our most vulnerable Pennsylvanians, our essential workers and our healthcare system.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].