Philly takes first steps in rolling back COVID-19 restrictions

Workers wearing face masks work at a construction site in Luxembourg
REUTERS/Johanna Geron

Philadelphia is taking its first steps toward easing coronavirus-related restrictions by allowing construction work to resume and golf courses to reopen on Friday.

In addition, city leaders announced that they are planning to scale back operations at the surge hospital site at Temple University’s Liacouras Center over the next two weeks.

Officials reported 358 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday and 25 additional virus-related fatalities, raising the city’s toll to 541. About 57 percent of the deaths have occurred in nursing homes.

There are 1,858 coronavirus patients being treated at hospitals in southeastern Pennsylvania. Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said 30 percent of the region’s beds are open, including 28 percent of intensive care unit beds.

“Those hospitals in the city are busy, but clearly they’re able to handle the epidemic at this stage,” he said.

That ability, along with a stabilization in the number of new cases, led officials to determine that the Liacouras Center is no longer needed as a field hospital.

The facility, which opened April 20, never treated more than a handful of patients at one time, but Mayor Jim Kenney said it was important to have the space available if hospitals filled up.

“Better to build it and they don’t come than to not build it at all,” he said.

Farley anticipated that the center would stop admitting new patients early next week. Officials said equipment and supplies will be kept in place in case the virus returns for a second wave or cases begin to rise.

U.S. military members who have been working at the Liacouras Center will be deployed to aid local hospitals, Managing Director Brian Abernathy said.

Kenney signed an executive order Wednesday providing details about how construction crews will be allowed to return to work. The document follows an announcement by Gov. Tom Wolf that allows projects across the state to resume Friday.

Except for emergency repairs, contractors are not permitted to work inside occupied residences. Demolition of attached structures, any projects that require support of a shared wall and underpinning will also be prohibited.

Only projects that received permits on or before March 20 will be allowed to resume, and any plans that require zoning approval cannot move forward.

Four workers will be allowed on site for a single-family property, and, for commercial projects, no more than four members of a crew can be at an enclosed site under 2,000 square feet. One additional worker is allowed for each additional 500 square feet.

“This is just a first step, but an important first step, as we attempt to restart the economy while still doing everything we can to mitigate the spread of this virus,” Kenney said.

In addition, employees will be required to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart, unless it’s impossible for safety reasons. Workers are supposed to be screened at their job sites, and contractors must designate a COVID-19 safety officer and develop a coronavirus safety plan.

Kenney also acted in accordance with a state directive allowing Pennsylvania golf courses to reopen Friday. Courses will be required to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for outdoor recreation.

Five city-run courses, Cobbs Creek, Karakung, Walnut Lane, John F. Byrne and Juniata, will be open for players this week, as well as a pair of municipal driving ranges, Burholme and Strawberry Green, also known as 33rd and Oxford, officials said.

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