Philly “getting closer” to reopening, health chief says

Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said Philadelphia is getting closer to easing coronavirus-related restrictions.
PHOTO: JACK TOMCZUK

As more counties in Pennsylvania begin reopening Friday, Philadelphia is “getting closer” to easing coronavirus-related restrictions, the city’s health commissioner said, but officials have not yet set a date.

Thomas Farley said Thursday that his department is monitoring case rates, hospital capacity and efforts to develop a comprehensive contact tracing system.

“It’s ultimately up to the governor, but we’re certainly looking at those indicators,” Farley said.

Philadelphia received $92 million in federal funds for contact tracing and testing, and, this week, employees from the Department of Public Health are piloting a tracing program with Penn Medicine, Farley said.

Officials are examining a few different models to deploy the strategy, which experts say is key to containing the virus as the world awaits a vaccine.

Farley said the city could conduct the tracing on its own, work with healthcare providers or partner with an non-medical organization.

“We could hire anywhere from 30 staff to 200 staff depending on which mix of models we end up using,” he said. “We want to do this as quickly as possible.”

The city has already put out job postings for contact tracers. Farley said officials hope to find what works and scale up the initiative over the next four to eight weeks.

A dozen counties are set to move to Gov. Tom Wolf’s yellow phase of recovery Friday. Most retail shops will be allowed to reopen, and the stay-at-home order will be lifted in those areas. Some businesses, including gyms and salons, cannot reopen, and gatherings of more than 25 people will still be prohibited.

Mayor Jim Kenney reiterated his concern about a surge in the fall and said Philadelphia would be deliberate in restarting the economy.

“We have to be thoughtful, sure and scientific about what we do and how we do it,” he said. “Hopefully we’re going to get there as soon as possible but not sooner than we can.”

Wolf’s current stay-at-home order for “red” counties is scheduled to remain in effect through at least June 4.

City leaders reported 341 new COVID-19 cases Thursday and 13 additional deaths, bringing Philadelphia’s toll to 1,165.

About 1,200 people are hospitalized with the coronavirus in southeastern Pennsylvania, including 623 in the city, officials said.

Statewide, cases jumped by 980 to 65,392 since the start of the outbreak, and there were 102 new fatalities linked to COVID-19.

Wolf on Thursday officially signed a bill allowing bars and other establishments to sell grab-and-go cocktails.

Bars who have lost at least 25 percent of monthly sales can offer 4-to-64-ounce containers before 11 p.m. The change will expire after the state lifts its disaster declaration and business returns to 60 percent capacity, according to the Governor’s Office.

“This new temporary rule creates more business for bars and restaurants when they need it, helps to meet customer demand and supports social distancing,” Wolf said in a statement.

In other news, the city’s Playstreets program will be returning this summer, although recreational activities may be curtailed to align with social distancing.

Residents who live on small, one-way roads can apply to close their streets on weekdays from noon to 3 p.m. between June 15 and Aug. 25 to distribute meals to kids in their neighborhood.

The deadline to apply is June 5. For more information, visit www.phila.gov/programs/playstreets.

Officials, meanwhile, are working on developing plans to offer modified neighborhood day camps for children if health conditions allow. The Department of Parks and Recreation operates 150 such camps each summer.

Theme camps and the Swim for Life program have been canceled. City pools will remain closed through the summer.

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