Some local counties preparing to be among the first ones to reopen

On Friday, Gov. Tom Wolf is set to announce which areas can begin to reopen, and several local counties are preparing to be among the first wave.

The governor laid out several guidelines for a county to be considered for reopening, including health care capacity and availability of personal protective equipment for front line workers.

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“When we make these decisions, we're going to be looking at the likelihood that groups of individuals are going to be safe or not safe. If they're not going to be safe then we're not going to reopen,” Wolf said.

On top of having enough hospital beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment, the governor said a county will be under consideration to reopen if they have fewer than 50 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people over the last two weeks.

Using daily data released by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, 11 Investigates crunched the numbers. For example, Allegheny County has 1.2 million people, meaning they could have 600 new cases and still fall below the threshold. Over the last two weeks, the county had 364 new coronavirus cases.

Here is the change over the last two weeks of confirmed COVID-19 cases from the Pennsylvania Health Department:

April 30th

  • Allegheny: 1,289 cases (+364)
  • Armstrong: 51 cases (+19)
  • Beaver: 405 cases (+237)
  • Butler: 178 cases (+24)
  • Fayette: 80 cases (+20)
  • Greene: 26 cases (+2)
  • Indiana: 63 cases (+19)
  • Lawrence: 65 cases (+10)
  • Mercer: 65 cases (+15)
  • Washington: 115 cases (+42)
  • Westmoreland: 391 cases (+151)

April 16th

  • Allegheny: 925 cases
  • Armstrong: 32 cases
  • Beaver: 168 cases
  • Butler: 154 cases
  • Fayette: 60 cases
  • Greene: 24 cases
  • Indiana: 44 cases
  • Lawrence: 55 cases
  • Mercer: 50 cases
  • Washington: 73 cases
  • Westmoreland: 240 cases

In fact, every southwestern Pennsylvania county, with the exception of Beaver County, met this key reopening benchmark.

“Beaver’s a bit of an outlier in that it really hit a nursing home facility, particularly their hospice component of that,” said Rep. Mike Turzai.

Turzai, speaker of the house and North Hills representative, believes western Pennsylvania needs to be among the first areas to reopen, pointing to declining cases and the crippling economic impact.

“I’m hopeful the governor is really looking at the statistics from a health care perspective and from an economic perspective,” Turzai said.

During a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Wolf wouldn’t give any indication which areas can soon begin the reopening process. However, they’re details he assured us would be released at some point tomorrow.

Allegheny County

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said he believes Allegheny County has a 50-50 chance of getting permission to reopen in the first wave, but if not on May 8, he suspects at least by May 15.

While Allegheny County has met the governor’s benchmarks for reopening -- fewer new cases, expanded testing and contact tracing, and hospitals that haven’t been overwhelmed Fitzgerald still suspects the governor will reopen beginning with other areas that have had far fewer cases.

“They could do it in two waves, where wave No. 1 would be the lowest part of the state and then maybe a week or so later it would be us, but i do anticipate, that if we are able to keep our numbers low. as we have over the last 14 to 20 days, and we continue along those lines, I do think we will go from red to yellow,” Fitzgerald said.

Channel 11 reached out to Pittsburgh city leaders to see if the city would reopen if the county gets the go ahead.

Dan Gilman,the mayor’s chief of staff, said, 'We will talk with the governor, county executive and health experts and make decisions together that keep people safe."

Fitzgerald said a number of other factors also bode well for Allegheny County, including the network of hospitals, and the county health department.

The county health director said she expects to see a spike in cases when the county does reopen. The county executive urged residents not to let up on the gas pedal and continuing wearing masks and social distancing.

Armstrong County

Leaders in Armstrong County are taking a very proactive approach to try to get area businesses back up and running. Commissioners reached out to the governor directly to try to get stores reopened.

Just like many other businesses in the county, Ryan’s Creek House, a restaurant and bar, has been empty for almost two months.

“I think the hardest thing for business owners because we like to plan, is what comes next? Because right now everything’s been quiet,” said the owner Ryan Bloser.

He says small businesses like his are reaching a breaking point.

“It’s getting to the, ‘hey we’re getting desperate if we don’t open now to generate revenue, we’re going to be late on that mortgage payment; we’re not going to be able to pay our employees,’” Bloser said.

Armstrong County has only 51 confirmed COVID-19 cases — and no current hospitalizations. There’s no demand for testing and that’s why county leaders are urging the governor to bring business back.

“We are at 33 cases per 100,000, so we’re definitely under the governor’s and Dr. Levine’s criteria to reopen on that sense,” said Armstrong County Commissioner Pat Fabian.

Businesses owners think Armstrong County could be in a position to be a model for reopening shuttered industries.

“There’s other ways to protect ourselves than staying in quarantine; let us work, let us live and let us get out there and the small businesses here are crying out now saying we need to live and get things going,” said Armstrong County Commissioner Jason Renshaw.

Washington County

Most of the small businesses in Finleyville, like businesses across the state, are closed right now. Commissioners in Washington County say the numbers are extremely low, and officials are now asking the governor to look at the county’s situation and reopen it.

The Washington County Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf requesting his approval to reopen Washington County’s economy, writing in part, “We believe Washington County has been successful in our efforts to limit COVID-19, and we respectfully request you to reopen Washington County as soon as safely possible.”

Washington County has two confirmed COVID19 deaths and 115 confirmed cases. Commissioners eagerly anticipate the governor’s announcement, which is set for Friday.