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Blair, Cambria, Bedford to reopen

Wolf gives go-ahead for three counties to go to yellow status; Huntingdon to stay red

After weeks of coronavirus lockdown, Blair, Cambria and Bedford counties — but not Huntingdon — learned they’ll be getting partial relief starting May 15 when they move from red to yellow status with a second group of counties, even as an initial group went to yellow Friday.

It will mean lifting the administration’s stay-home order and opening some businesses, although many restrictions will remain.

The group of 24 counties in the northcentral and northwest that moved to yellow Friday include Centre and Clearfield counties.

“It was a good day for Blair,” said state Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona.

“Past due,” said state Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg. “I hope it’s not too late for many of the people affected by this.”

“(We) need to continue to be safe and responsible,” Gregory said. “But we also need to get back to supporting local businesses and getting people back to work.”

“I feel like the parent with two children that are on different ball teams,” wrote state Sen. Judy Ward, whose district includes Blair and Fulton counties, which will go to yellow, and Huntingdon, Franklin and Cumberland, which remain red. “One team wins, and the other team doesn’t.”

“Residents should be mindful that yellow still means caution,” Gov. Tom Wolf said during the administration’s daily COVID-19 webcast. Where possible, people should continue to avoid contact with others, going to a few stores rather than many, exercising on a quiet street rather than at a busy park, calling to video chat rather than visiting in person, the governor said.

Huntingdon County’s remaining red is “heartbreaking” — and unfair, Ward said in phone interview. Its problem is an outbreak at the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon, where 110 inmates and 36 employees have been infected.

Those numbers should be extracted from the county’s case counts, because the inmates are segregated from the rest of the community, Ward said.

Her request is one that has been made on behalf of many counties with outbreaks in congregate settings, but Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine has insisted repeatedly that such numbers need to remain, because employees of those facilities go in and out of their communities and can carry infections both ways.

There at least shouldn’t be a concern that the prison outbreak is stressing health care capacity, because, based on a call this week with officials from Penn Highlands Huntingdon and UPMC Altoona, it’s not a problem, Ward said.

Even for the counties in her district going to yellow, Ward is not satisfied.

Blair and Fulton are headed “in the right direction,” but there are still many businesses that won’t be able to open, Ward noted in the news release.

“Every day we delay in reopening is another day that we risk seeing small business owners and their hard-working employees lose everything,” she wrote.

State Rep. Frank Burns, D-Johnstown, was “stunned, bewildered, a little betray­ed,” when Cambria wasn’t in the first group, despite low case counts, Burns wrote in a news release.

Now, he’s glad “the governor and his team have listened to reason,” he wrote. “We can balance public safety and the best interests of our communities.”

It’s still not an ideal situation, Burns said. “(But) it will allow a few more businesses to open up, there will be a little more freedom.”

He won’t be satisfied until Cambria is “in the green,” he said.

“I’m glad the governor heard our calls to alter his original plan,” state Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, wrote in a news release. “Bedford and Fulton counties have continually had fewer cases compared to other counties in the state, even counties that were permitted to begin the reopening process today.”

“(It’s) a small victory but it is by no means the end of the struggle,” Topper added.

Schmitt learned Tuesday in a phone conversation with a senior administration staffer that the governor would announce Friday that Blair was going to yellow, Schmitt said.

The conversation resulted from his having sent a lawyerly “advocacy” letter the day before to the governor and various staffers, hoping one or more would call Wolf’s attention to it.

“I have no power to force (the governor) to act or direct access (to him),” Schmitt said. “I have to get my message carried.”

The senior staffer did just that, he said.

“Can I say I was instrumental?” Schmitt said. “It didn’t hurt.”

It is easy to imagine the administration would have found it more comfortable to have delayed the second round of counties by a few weeks to judge the effect of opening the initial 24, Schmitt said.

Epidemiologically, that might have made sense, he said.

“(But) I don’t think as a practical matter that the governor could wait,” Schmitt said.

Wolf is a businessman and knows what it’s like when facilities are closed and employees laid off, Schmitt said, adding that he imagines Wolf struggled with the decision.

“He’s shooting in the dark as much as we are,” Schmitt said. “And the science (tends to be) contradictory — it’s not well-settled.”

Schmitt doesn’t know what, if anything, changed in the past week that made Blair a candidate for reopening, when it wasn’t chosen May 1 with the first-round counties — although the Democratic governor seems to be responsive to pressure from the Republican-majority General Assembly, he said.

Schmitt was far from the only lawmaker to exert such pressure on behalf of counties in the state that had reasonably low case counts.

In addition to Blair, Cambria, Bedford and Fulton counties, Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties will move to yellow Friday.

While the initial opening round comprised all the counties in the northcentral and the northwest health districts except Columbia, which had ongoing outbreaks, the second round comprises all the counties in the southwest health district except Beaver, which has had a nursing home outbreak, while including three on the district’s eastern flank — Blair, Bedford and Cambria.

The new grouping seems to give credence to assurances from the administration that it wouldn’t conform slavishly to the health district groupings it initially proposed when it introduced its reopening plan, which comprises three phases, including the final one, green.

In the yellow phase, telework must continue where feasible, businesses with in-person operations must follow business and building safety orders, child care services can open, but comply with guidance, congregate care and prison visitation remains prohibited and schools remain closed for in-person instruction, according to the DoH website.

Also, in the yellow phase, the stay-home order is replaced by “aggressive mitigation,” gatherings of more than 25 people are prohibited, in-person retail is permitted, but curbside service and delivery preferred and indoor recreation facilities like gyms, health and wellness facilities like spas, personal care facilities like salons and entertainment facilities like casinos and theaters must remain closed, while restaurants and bars are limited to carry-out and delivery, according to the DoH website.

Masking is highly recommended, Levine has said.

All businesses in the yellow phase must follow DoH and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for social distancing and cleaning.

“There are a lot more tough days to come,” Schmitt said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

By the numbers

New/total COVID-19 county cases: Blair 0/28; Bedford 1/28 (1 death); Cambria 3/40 (1 death); Centre 1/117 (1 death); Clearfield 2/24; Huntingdon 8/117;

Area new/total cases: 15/354

New/total cases statewide: 1,323 (up 23 percent)/54,238

New/total deaths statewide: 200/3,616, 6.6 percent of positive cases

New/total negative tests in area counties: 202/5,540

New/total tests in area (new positives plus new negatives): 217/5,894, 1.1 percent of population in Blair; 1 percent of population in area

New/total negative tests statewide: 6,448/216,321

New/total tests statewide: 7,771/270,559; 2.1 percent of population

Infection rate (percent of population with confirmed positives) region/state: 0.06 percent/0.42 percent

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