Thanks to mass testing program, state eyes June 1 for initial reopening

DOVER — Delaware has set June 1 as the target date for the initial phase of the reopening process. Gov. John Carney announced Friday the state will be significantly expanding its COVID-19 testing with an eye on easing restrictions next month.

Although he also extended the state of emergency from May 15 to May 31, the governor touted advancements in mass testing and contact tracing programs that will hopefully allow the state to begin a slow return to normalcy in a matter of weeks.

“All Delawareans – myself included – are ready to get our economy going again. But our response to COVID-19 has been driven by the science since Day 1 and will continue to be driven by the science,” the governor said in a statement. “The good news is our numbers in New Castle and Kent counties continue to move in the right direction. That means Delawareans are doing their part. They’ve stayed at home and practiced social distancing.

“This morning, we announced a significant statewide expansion of our COVID-19 testing program, in partnership with Delaware’s hospital systems, community health care centers, primary care physicians, and long-term care facilities. That’s good news for our efforts to reopen Delaware’s economy. Next week, we will announce a comprehensive contact tracing program, another key to reopening.

“Over the next couple weeks, we will build on the interim steps we took today, allowing certain small businesses to safely operate curbside, or by appointment only. We have heard the voices of small business owners loud and clear, and expect to move forward with a rolling reopening of Delaware’s economy. We will not hesitate to allow additional businesses to open before June 1, if we can do so safely.

“Ultimately, our ability to move into Phase I at the beginning of next month will depend on our ability to contain COVID-19 hot spots in Sussex County, especially along the Route 113 corridor. Because of the ongoing threat in Sussex County, we are not in a position yet to open Delaware’s beaches, or remove restrictions on short-term rentals and out-of-state travelers. We need everyone to really lean into the effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in southern Delaware.

“Delawareans can’t let up. Even once we move into Phase 1 of reopening, we still need to maintain social distancing to avoid a dangerous rebound in COVID-19 cases. Wash your hands. Don’t go out in public unnecessarily. Don’t gather in large groups. If we continue follow public health guidelines, we have a real shot of getting Delaware moving again starting June 1.”

The state announced its first coronavirus case March 11 and moved to prevent public gatherings and close most businesses over the next two weeks. Schools were shut down on a temporary basis, although that closure was later extended through the end of this year, with education going to remote-learning platforms.

Many entities were shut down in mid-March, although the state allowed retailers and some other businesses to open in very limited fashion beginning Friday.

As part of the plan to reopen, Delaware intends to conduct 80,000 tests a month, working alongside hospitals, doctors and community organizations. For comparison, hospitals in the state have tested about 34,000 people so far, according to the governor’s office.

Delaware has purchased 200,000 saliva-based tests from Curative, a Los Angeles-based testing company. The tests were set to begin arriving Friday. The cost was not immediately available.

Officials made the connection with Curative through New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer.

The state will prioritize individuals who are symptomatic, have been exposed to confirmed COVID-19 cases, are especially vulnerable or work in certain essential fields. Delaware intends to supply partner organizations like primary care physicians and pharmacies with testing supplies to help reach more people.

The Division of Public Health will develop a list of workers in key fields who will receive prioritized testing, coordinating with employers to do so.

“We want to make sure that we make testing very available to these front-line essential workers,” DPH Director Karyl Rattay said in a news conference Friday.

The state on Tuesday announced a plan to test all staff and residents of long-term care facilities here. Delaware has already been offering free testing in Sussex County, which has seen more than its fair share of COVID-19.

Officials said Friday they intend to continue providing that testing at rotating sites in Sussex and New Castle.

Echoing a line he’s been using for weeks, Gov. Carney said Delaware continues to make progress against the virus but the fight is far from over despite positive trends in cases and hospitalizations. The state needs more gloves and gowns for health care workers, for one thing, and officials are watching closely to see how people follow social distancing protocols and whether they cover their faces as required.

“A lot of these interim measures that we’re taking are a way to gauge public reaction,” Gov. Carney said.

Delaware has held virtual forums for business owners and other concerned citizens to offer input as officials weigh loosening restrictions, and Gov. Carney said that feedback has helped shape his thinking.

“The anxiety is growing,” Gov. Carney said. “I personally am conscious of that and factor that into the decision-making.”

The state has been following guidelines from the White House that propose a three-phase reopening. The first phase, which the governor aims to begin June 1, calls for continued social distancing and minimal non-essential travel, with at-risk individuals remaining home. Businesses can reopen in steps, with telework encouraged, though schools should remain closed.

Visits to senior centers and hospitals would be prohibited under the plan, although large venues like churches and movie theaters can operate with strict policies around social distancing. The second and third phases, each of which follow 14-day periods of declining cases, would see more restrictions lifted as society returns to where it was before the outbreak.

If all goes as hoped over the next three weeks, Delaware can allow more businesses to open their doors come June 1.

That’s a relief to many who have suffered financially as a result of the virus and ensuing shutdown. “Economic carnage,” as the governor put it this week, has led to a record-shattering 85,000 unemployment claims submitted to the Delaware Department of Labor over the past seven weeks.

One of the big decisions the governor will have to make in the coming weeks is what to do with the Delaware beaches, which have been closed since March to stop people from gathering in large groups with little space. Communities like Rehoboth Beach rely heavily on tourism, and should the beaches remain inaccessible come summer, there will be another economic hit.

Gov. Carney indicated the beaches could open on or around June 1 if people follow social distancing and efforts to stymy the virus’ spread are successful, although, like so much with the coronavirus, it remains in flux.

Though the state is mostly relying on voluntary compliance to enforce the mandates, Gov. Carney believes it’s firmly in the best interests of every resident to continue making sacrifices and keep this up at least a little longer.

When the state reopens in earnest “depends on our continued ability to protect all Delawareans,” he said.

For more information on the reopening process, visit de.gov/economy.


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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