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May 29, 2020

Philly details rules for upcoming COVID-19 yellow phase

City businesses, residents can prepare for next stage of pandemic response

Illness Coronavirus
Philly Yellow COVID HughE Dillon/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia will lift some economic restrictions as the city enters the yellow phase of Pennsylvania's COVID-19 reopening plan on June 5, 2020.

Philadelphia is on target to enter the yellow phase of Pennsylvania's COVID-19 reopening plan on June 5, when officials will begin relaxing the social and economic restrictions that have disrupted routine activities for months.

City officials laid out a framework addressing the way residents and businesses should handle the next step in the ongoing pandemic response. 

“Philadelphia must approach the next phase of the COVID-19 epidemic in a way that balances the risks of the virus with the public health risks caused by further social and economic damage from movement and business restrictions,” Mayor Jim Kenney said Friday. “Our strategy allows economic and social activity to gradually resume in a way that continues to suppress the virus and keep as many Philadelphians as safe and healthy as possible.”

The city's "Safer at Home" guide explains how Philly will use containment, social distancing and protections for vulnerable populations during the yellow phase.

“The path forward must be solidly based on science, available evidence about how the virus behaves, and a cautious approach that acknowledges the many things we do not yet know about COVID-19," Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said.

Lower-risk activities permitted to operate during the yellow phase include:

• Restaurants (including food trucks and walk-up ordering, but no dine-in service)

• Retail businesses (curbside and delivery are strongly encouraged)

• Child care centers

• Outdoor youth day camps and recreation

• Outdoor parks and related amenities

• Office-based businesses (telework still required whenever feasible)

• Consumer banking

• Automobile sales

• Real estate activities

• Manufacturing

• Warehouse operations

There are some notable differences between Philadelphia's yellow phase — at this stage — and the guidance issued by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf. 

The city will not be ready to permit outdoor dining on June 5, because officials are finalizing safety and logistical protocols. An announcement highlighting those measures could come next week. 

Philadelphia also will strongly recommend against any social gatherings, including religious services. This departure from the state's guidelines, which permit gatherings of up to 25 people in counties that advance to the yellow phase, comes after the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced plans to resume services on June 6

Though these recommendations won't be legally enforced, city officials stressed the success of the yellow phase will depend heavily on the voluntary participation of residents. 

Farley compared the yellow phase to the "safe mode" used in early computers to prevent viruses from corrupting the whole system.

"How can we reboot the city, restart the city, with the minimal level of activity that enables the economy to move in a way that then enables us to further combat the virus?" Farley asked. "It really is not reopening. It's not doing what we used to do before. It's a very protective way of operating."

Businesses that reopen during the yellow phase are urged to adopt eight key practices that will prevent the spread of COVID-19, with industry-specific guidelines detailed in separate documents:

• Mandatory face masks

• In-store barriers

• Reduced crowds

• Social distancing

• Isolation of symptomatic employees

• Hand washing

• Cleaning high-touch surfaces

• Clear communication of rules and signage for everyone using facility

Managing Director Brian Abernathy said the city is exploring ways to provide city businesses with funding to obtain personal protective equipment and plexiglass barriers.

Employees or customers that want to report possible health and safety violations in the workplace related to COVID-19 can contact 311. Violations could result in fines, penalties and license suspensions.

As Philadelphia enters the yellow phase, city officials will continue to monitor key metrics to track the spread of the coronavirus and determine whether there may be a need to resume heavier restrictions.

The health department will closely follow daily case counts; viral trends and symptoms at emergency departments; compliance with face masks in interior settings; hospital system and testing capacity; progress in nursing homes; and the effectiveness of contact tracing as those systems get up and running.

Some metrics already have given Philadelphia confidence to move forward. 

Hospitalizations are now half of what they were during the epidemic's April peak. The percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive has fallen from about 40% at the peak to about 10%, albeit with greater availability of tests. And anonymous cell phone data tracked by the city shows that more than 90% of residents are staying home most of the time, compared to about 75% before the pandemic, Dr. Farley said.

While loosening restrictions risks a potential backslide, Kenney said the decision to move ahead is backed by this progress and economic necessity. He said these steps are not motivated by political pressure in Harrisburg.

"I understand everybody's concern," Kenney said. "People are suffering both medically and financially. Folks are losing their houses, can't pay their rent, losing their businesses. I don't think it's political pressure. I think it's a practical situation that the numbers seem to be where they are that we can take this mini-step forward and obviously everybody's ready for us to do so. We just have to be vigilant and be ready to pull back if we have to."

Farley said the dangers of remaining frozen in the current state are too significant to ignore.

"There's a good body of literature that says that poverty is not good for your health," Farley said. "To put it more bluntly, poverty kills too. The virus kills. Poverty kills. We're trying to come up with a balance here to protect everyone as much as possible."

Philadelphia reported 255 additional confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Friday, bringing the city's total to 22,405. That figure is higher than what the city wants to see most days, but Farley noted that the health department received a large batch of test results on Friday.

An additional 20 fatalities brought the COVID-19 death toll to 1,278, including 678 nursing home residents.

Philadelphia hospitals currently are treating 469 patients with COVID-19, while hospitals across Southeastern Pennsylvania are treating 912 patients.

Farley said that the city is confident that the yellow phase will begin on June 5, but officials are prepared to push it back if important metrics don't appear to be on track.

"If the numbers look bad between now and June 5, we're going to delay this," Farley said. "We just have to follow those numbers every day."

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