HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday he is easing some pandemic restrictions in Philadelphia and the heavily populated suburbs on June 5, while lifting them almost entirely in 17 rural counties next week as Pennsylvania continues to emerge from a shutdown imposed nearly two months ago to help slow the spread of the new virus.
Wolf is accelerating his reopening plan even though more than 20 Pennsylvania counties remain above the state’s target for new infections that were supposed to qualify them for an easing of pandemic restrictions — and eight counties are more than three times over.
Local elected officials, Republican and Democrats alike, have been pressing for shutdown relief amid skyrocketing unemployment, as have small business owners who are struggling to keep afloat.
Wolf is taking action amid a partisan blame game over whether governors or the president is responsible for the economic wreckage. That fight could have enormous implications in the November election in this presidential battleground state.
The Democratic governor is moving Philadelphia, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lehigh, Northampton and Montgomery to “yellow” on June 5, meaning that people will be able to freely leave their homes and retailers and other kinds of businesses will be allowed to reopen, though other restrictions remain.
Eight counties are moving to yellow a week earlier, on May 29: Dauphin, Franklin, Huntingdon, Lebanon, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike and Schuylkill.
Wolf also announced the first batch of counties moving to “green,” the least restrictive phase of his reopening plan: Bradford, Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Montour, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Venango and Warren. All of them are lightly populated counties across a northern swath of the state.
Health officials have said they were working on specific guidelines for counties in the green phase.
In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania on Friday:
The Pennsylvania Department of Health says people who have tested positive for coronavirus antibodies — and who also had symptoms of COVID-19 or a high-risk exposure to the virus — are being added to the state’s running tally of infections.
Unlike tests for active infections, antibody tests are blood tests that can detect whether someone was infected at some point in the past. Positive antibody tests represent 481 cases, or less than 1 percent, of the state’s overall tally of more than 66,000 infections, according to Health Department spokesman Nate Wardle.
Pennsylvania splits its virus tally into cases that are confirmed by virus testing and probable cases. Positive antibody tests are considered probable cases. Health authorities say they do not count probable cases for the purpose of deciding when a county is ready to reopen.
“What’s very important to note is we only use the count of confirmed cases when we’re looking at any metrics in terms of counties going from red to yellow, or yellow to green, or any other transition,” said the state’s health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine.
The Wolf administration is loosening its ban on foreclosures and evictions.
A tenant who damages property, breaks the law or breaches the lease in some other way can now be evicted under a modified executive order issued by Wolf on Friday.
The temporary ban still applies to evictions and foreclosures for nonpayment or because a tenant has overstayed a lease. The moratorium is scheduled to last until July 10.
“I am protecting housing for Pennsylvanians who may be facing economic challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Wolf said in a written statement. “My order will not affect proceedings for other issues, such as property damage or illegal activity.”
The Wolf administration has been fighting legal action by landlords who say the governor overstepped his authority by imposing a moratorium on evictions. His spokeswoman, Lyndsay Kensinger, said the decision to amend the executive order was considered before the litigation was filed “in consideration of feedback from stakeholders.”
The federal government on Friday began distributing $238 million in emergency aid to Pennsylvania nursing homes that have been hit especially hard by the virus.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said it is making payments to 587 nursing homes. Each nursing home will get a fixed payment of $50,000, plus $2,500 per bed. The money can be used to pay staff, boost testing capacity, acquire protective equipment and for other expenses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nursing homes have seen declining patient populations and increased costs as they struggle to contain the virus. Long-term care residents account for about two-thirds of the statewide death toll of more than 4,800, a higher proportion than in most other states.
A drive-through coronavirus testing site in northeastern Pennsylvania will close next week, the Wolf administration announced Friday.
The site at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, opened April 20 and tested more than 2,000 people. Luzerne County has been among the state’s hot spots for the new virus, though its infection numbers have been trending down.
The state health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, said in a written statement that “it is time we redirect these resources to other areas of our state that are in need of assistance in this pandemic.”
The public testing site will continue to offer testing through May 29.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health on Friday reported 115 additional deaths linked to COVID-19, raising the statewide total to 4,984.
Two-thirds of the state’s deaths have been among residents of nursing homes and other facilities that care for older adults.
State health officials also reported that 866 more people have tested positive for the new coronavirus. The state has recorded fewer than 1,000 new cases for 12 consecutive days.
Since early March, infections have been confirmed in more than 66,000 people in Pennsylvania.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher than the state’s confirmed case count because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak
DOOLEYVILLE — Two people suffered minor injuries Friday afternoon in separate accidents that occurred within about five minutes of each other.
At 1:24 p.m., a one-vehicle crash occurred along Locust Gap Highway (State Route 2038) near the Mount Carmel Township village of Dooleyville.
Mount Carmel Township Patrolman Daniel Politza reported Harold Updegrave, 85, of Valley View, was driving a 2002 Jeep Liberty east toward Mount Carmel when he lost control of his vehicle while coming down a hill.
Politza said Updegrave’s Jeep Liberty then struck a gate and stone pillar at the entrance to SS Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Cemetery, rolled over multiple times and came to rest on the highway.
The front end of Updegrave’s vehicle sustained extensive damage. The Jeep was towed from the scene by Joe’s Towing.
Updegrave was treated at the scene by emergency medical personnel and transported by AREA Services Ambulance to Geisinger-Shamokin Area Community Hospital.
Assisting Politza at the scene were Mount Carmel Township Patrolman Brian Carnuccio, Atlas and Kulpmont firefighters, local fire police and AREA Services.
The scene was cleared at 2:22 p.m.
State police at Stonington were summoned to investigate an accident at 1:30 p.m. along Route 125 at the hairpin turn on the bottom of the mountain in East Cameron Township near the village of Gowen City.
Reports at the scene indicated a female driver was descending the steep hill when her car hydroplaned and crashed into guardrail.
The driver, who was not identified, reportedly suffered minor injuries and was transported by AREA Services Ambulance to Geisinger-Shamokin Area Community Hospital.
State police did not have an accident report available Friday.
Also assisting were East Cameron Township firefighters, Shamokin Emergency Squad personnel and AREA Services.
MOUNT CARMEL — Mount Carmel Area School Board unanimously hired John Darrah on Thursday night to serve as junior high school principal at a salary of $65,000 plus benefits.
Darrah, who has been a high school social studies teacher in the district for several years and serves as the head football coach, will succeed Pete Cheddar, who will become superintendent July 1.
Cheddar will replace Bernie Stellar, who will retire as superintendent but remains employed in the district as a music teacher and band director. Stellar was reclassified by the board as a music teacher Thursday as per terms of his contract, effective July 1.
Voting to hire Darrah as junior high school (grades 7 and 8) principal were Donna James, Bill Brecker, Ed Zack, Tony Mazzatesta, Cheryl Latorre, Joseph Zanella, James Britt and Jose Gonzalo. Board President Robert Muldowney was absent.
The board also unanimously approved the 2020-21 proposed budget in the amount of $20,941,168.44 that includes no tax increase. The budget will be up for final adoption at the board’s next meeting on June 25.
Directors accepted the retirement of full-time aide Lucille Shimko and resignations of volunteer junior high football coach Edward Stewart and junior high cross country coach Thomas Moser.
Mike Scicchitano was approved as an assistant varsity football coach at a salary of $1,900.
The board also approved the 2020-21 Northumberland County Career and Technology Center budget, with the district’s share being $449,731.30.
The board approved a scholarship in memory of Mount Carmel Area alumnus Randy Moyer.
High school student Brianna Tamborelli and elementary school student Cali Maher were recognized as Student Merit Award winners for March.
Stellar announced approximately 130 seniors will graduate this year. He said the filming of graduates receiving their diplomas along with speeches by the valedictorian, salutatorian and class president will be broadcast by WKMC, Service Electric and YouTube on Friday, June 5, which was the original commencement date.
The superintendent said a vehicle parade for the graduates also will be held June 5 at the school, where diplomas, awards and varsity letters will be distributed.
Stellar said the district plans to hold a live graduation ceremony on Saturday, Aug. 8, at the Silver Bowl, with a rain date of Aug. 9, if permitted due to the coronavirus restrictions. He said if the graduation cannot be held in August, it will take place at a later time, possibly on Saturday, Nov. 28.
He said Class Night awards will be videotaped and aired Monday, June 1, on WKMC, Service Electric and YouTube.
Mount Carmel Area students are participating in Think Big’s virtual prom next week. A live prom event may be held outdoors the weekend of July 31 and Aug. 1, if permitted and depending on the weather. If a prom can’t be held for students this year, the Class of 2020 will be permitted to attend next year’s prom.
The superintendent said district officials are working with Mount Carmel Area Ecumenical Ministerium to hold a virtual or live baccalaureate this summer.
SHAMOKIN — A 31-year-old Shamokin man, who was wanted for statutory sexual assault and related offenses for allegedly engaging in sexual intercourse with a teen over a three-year period, turned himself over to authorities Friday morning at the office of Magisterial District Judge John Gembic III.
David J. Sperle, of 600 E. Commerce St., who was wanted on an arrest warrant since May 5, was arraigned at 11 a.m. by Gembic on felonies of statutory sexual assault, sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault (two counts), corruption of minors and unlawful contact with a minor.
The charges were filed by Patrolman Raymond Siko II in connection with incidents between Jan. 1, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2019. Police said the female victim was 14 when the incidents began.
Sperle was released on $20,000 unsecured bail.
According to a criminal complaint, Sperle is accused of having sex with the girl in the cab of his tractor-trailer while it was parked along Route 61. After that incident, police said Sperle told the victim that she would be in trouble if she told anyone about the sexual encounter.
Sperle also allegedly had sex with the teen at his home and on one occasion, choked the victim, causing her to become unconscious, police said.
During a consented interview with police on April 17, Sperle admitted to having sexual intercourse with the minor on only two occasions. Sperle admitted often talking to the victim about sex.
Sperle said he knew the victim’s age when the acts were committed.