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COVID-19: Partial business reopening this weekend

Crowds in police protests complicate predictions for future openings 
As Bucks County takes the first steps toward reopening as it makes a transition from red, Gov. Tom Wolf announced on May 30 that the Commonwealth Response Coordination Center, through which the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) was activated for the COVID-19 response, has been activated further and covers two counties directly abutting Bucks.

The new measures have been taken in response to protests in the wake of the police homicide of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Wolf signed the disaster emergency declaration to provide state assistance to communities grappling with escalating protests.

“People have every right to speak out and demonstrate, but it’s unacceptable to take advantage of protests to incite violence, harm others and destroy property,” Gov. Wolf said. He added that the declaration authorizes the commonwealth to assist municipalities to de-escalate violence and promote safety.

Further expanded on June 1, the declaration activates emergency response to six counties, including Montgomery, Philadelphia, Delaware, Pittsburgh, Dauphin and Erie. While Bucks county was not included in the declaration, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties together comprise the entire western border of Bucks County.

The declaration intensifies the role of PEMA, which in the space of a few months is in the position of responding to two major events affecting the state and shared with most of the nation. COVID-19 transmission continues to be a concern, and crowds of protesters may change the delicate equation upon which reopening is predicated.

As of June 2, there have been 5,050 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 in the county. The increase from last week’s count of 4,916 is 2.7 percent, defining a clear flattening trend of weekly increases from 7.5 percent last week and 11 percent the week before.

Deaths however, which tend to trail confirmed diagnoses, have generally remained unchanged. The county has experienced a total of 501 deaths as of June 2, from 461 deaths a week ago and 426 the week before that.

There is local precedent for concern, however. In the summer of 1918, a similar pandemic known as the Spanish flu seemed to be abating. But a large outdoor public gathering in Philadelphia – this time in a parade to bolster support for World War I efforts – resulted in a spike of cases so overwhelming that every hospital bed in the city was quickly filled.

The level of contagion of COVID-19 is at least equal to that of the Spanish flu in an epidemiologic measure known as the basic reproductive rate, or R0, and in fact may be up to three times more contagious. The R0 of the Spanish flu was estimated at an average of 2 – meaning that, on average, one person would go on to infect two more. The R0 value for COVID-19 could be as high as 6 according to an early release article in the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal.

Former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said on CBS “Face the Nation” on May 31 that “chains of transmission will have become lit” from large scale protest gatherings across the country. Federal coronavirus task force members expressed similar concern due to the protest demonstrations according to a CNN report.

Any spike in cases from protests in Philadelphia will likely not be apparent for another week or two, but could complicate the efforts in the region, including Bucks County, to reopen. Bucks is transitioning from red phase to yellow in a three-color phased matrix plan by the Wolf administration.

As in the red phase, salons, spas, gyms and other businesses will remain closed under yellow zone guidelines which also prohibit indoor entertainment venues such as casinos and theaters, indoor dining facilities, and any gathering of 25 or more people.

The businesses that can open under yellow are limited to 50 percent maximum capacity and must designate special hours for seniors and high-risk individuals. Masking will be required in public buildings with exceptions granted for medical reasons.

School classroom facilities would also remain closed, although child care facilities may be considered on a case-by-case basis. A move from yellow to green would require additional monitoring for 14 days. Restrictions on capacity are relaxed from 50 percent to 75 percent under the green situation.