The area is home to nearly 2.7 million Pennsylvanians.
Gov. Tom Wolf will announce that 13 more western counties, including much of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, can shed his most restrictive pandemic orders on movement and businesses next week, joining much of northern Pennsylvania that began emerging Friday.
The counties to be announced Friday by Wolf are Allegheny, Armstrong, Bedford, Blair, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Fulton, Greene, Indiana, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland, comprising nearly 2.7 million residents.
The only western county held back, Beaver County, is home to perhaps the state’s worst nursing home outbreak, where dozens have died and a congressman is calling for an investigation.
Otherwise, the area of approximately 10,000 square miles (15,000 square kilometers), can reopen next Friday, the governor’s office told The Associated Press.
When it does, it will join people in 24 counties across a swath of primarily rural northern Pennsylvania who are the first to have pandemic restrictions eased under Wolf’s reopening plan, including Williamsport, State College and Erie.
They began opening stores Friday that had been shut down since March under Wolf’s orders, while residents began leaving their homes unfettered by a just-expired stay-at-home order that had been in place since April 1.
The 24 counties have been only lightly impacted by a pandemic that has killed more than 3,600 people statewide.
At Gerlach’s Garden & Floral in suburban Erie, the garden store and flower shop opened its doors Friday to people seeking seeds, seedlings, flowers, shrubs and more. Social-distancing markers were on the floor, plexiglass was by the register, employees were wearing masks and a huge chunk of its big selling season is past.
“Those weeks we’ve missed, those are gone, we can’t get them back, we cant make them up,” said Adam Gerlach, one of the owners. “So we’re looking to the future, looking to see what we can capitalize on a little bit more these next couple weeks.”
It helps that the flower shop is open in time for Mother’s Day on Sunday — missing Easter was a devastating hit — but Gerlach estimates that the business has lost at least 20% of its revenue for the year.
That said, people were coming into the store, and it felt good to open up and see customers, Gerlach said.
“Letting people in definitely feels good, for people to come in and do their shopping,” Gerlach said. “So far, everyone I talked to is happy to be out and be able to go get stuff.”
Most of Pennsylvania, including the heavily populated Philadelphia area and hard-hit eastern Pennsylvania, remains under Wolf’s strictest shutdown orders, called the “red” designation, with no timeline to emerge. There, Wolf’s stay-at-home orders extend until June 4.
Wolf has granted the “yellow” phase to the two dozen counties that emerged from lockdown Friday.
The 24 counties are home to 1.5 million of Pennsylvania’s 12.8 million residents, and is nearly one-half of its geographical area at about 18,000 square miles (27,000 square kilometers).
The counties are Bradford, Cameron, Centre, Clarion, Clearfield, Clinton, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, Lycoming, McKean, Mercer, Montour, Northumberland, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Union, Venango and Warren.
They will be joined by 13 more counties next Friday, under Wolf’s plan.
Along with retailers and other kinds of businesses that can reopen, gatherings of up to 25 people are now allowed. But gyms, barber shops, nail salons, casinos, theaters and other such venues are required to remain closed and other restrictions will remain in place, including a ban on youth sports.
Republicans and some business owners have complained that Wolf is moving too slowly to reopen Pennsylvania’s economy. More than 1.9 million people, including self-employed and gig workers, have filed for unemployment since mid-March.