Pa. Shuts Down ‘Non-Life Sustaining’ Businesses
By MARC LEVY, MICHAEL RUBINKAM and MARK SCOLFORO Associated Press
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Gov. Tom Wolf is tightening his directives to businesses to shut down, issuing a dire warning and saying Thursday that all “non-life-sustaining” businesses in Pennsylvania must close their physical locations by 8 p.m. to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Enforcement actions against businesses that do not close their physical locations will begin Saturday, Wolf said in a statement.
“I had hoped for voluntary compliance so our public safety officials could focus on assisting with the crisis,” Wolf, a Democrat, said in a video statement. “Unfortunately we have not seen full compliance. We have no time to lose.”
Under Wolf’s order, more than 150 types of businesses have been told to close their physical locations. In Mercer County, county commissioners declared an emergency and asked the public to avoid the county courthouse unless matters can only be dealt with in person and for government business to be handled by phone or email first, wherever possible.
Wolf said his order would be enforced by state troopers, local officials, the state Health and Agriculture departments and the Liquor Control Board.
Wolf spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger said law enforcement will use discretion as they enforce the governor’s order.
She said in an email that there is a “range of potential actions,” including notifying people about the closure order, warnings, citations and what she termed “mandatory closure.”
Businesses that fail to comply risk citations, fines or license suspensions, and “forfeit their ability to receive any applicable disaster relief and/or may be subject to other appropriate administrative action,” Wolf’s office said in a statement.
Criminal prosecution is also a possibility, with violators subject to fines or imprisonment, Wolf’s office said.
Businesses that remain open must practice social distancing and other measures to protect workers and patrons from contracting the virus, it said.
Allowed to stay open are gas stations, grocery stores, beer distributors, drugstores and building materials stores. Restaurants and bars can continue to offer carry-out, delivery and drive-thru food and drink service, but not dine-in service.
Businesses under shutdown orders range from coal mines to building contractors to many types of manufacturers, plus professional offices including law firms and accounting offices.
Retailers ordered to close include car dealers, clothing stores, furniture stores, florists, office supply stores and lawn and garden stores.
Wolf’s statement came as Pennsylvania reported another big jump in confirmed coronavirus cases and Wolf’s administration worked to help hospitals create more bed spaces in anticipation of a surge in coronavirus patients.
Confirmed coronavirus cases topped 180, up 40%, according to the state Department of Health. In Philadelphia, officials reported that 20 of the 44 cases there are health care workers, although they were not all exposed at work.
Meanwhile, with schools ordered shut for at least the rest of March and possibly longer, the state Education Department canceled statewide tests for schoolchildren because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Health Secretary Rachel Levine said her agency is asking hospitals, starting Friday, to update their emergency plans to accommodate COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
That directive includes asking hospitals to postpone elective procedures and admissions to ensure as many beds as possible are available for coronavirus patients.
The department is also lifting a regulation that prevents a hospital from adding beds without permission and trying to make sure that hospitals have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment and ventilators.
A look at the other developments in Pennsylvania:
Pennsylvania reported its first death Wednesday from the coronavirus, and state officials announced Thursday another big jump, 40%, in the number of confirmed cases as testing by private laboratories and hospitals ramped up.
Confirmed cases in Pennsylvania topped 180 as of Thursday, rising by 52, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. About two-thirds of confirmed cases have been in southeastern Pennsylvania. The majority of testing is now being done by private labs or hospitals, which are increasingly operating drive-through sites where someone who is showing symptoms can get a sample taken for testing.
Philadelphia officials said they hope to open a testing site by the stadium complex, possibly by Friday afternoon. The priorities will be testing health care workers with COVID-19 symptoms and people who are age 50 or over with COVID-19 symptoms.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.
STANDARDIZED TESTS HALTED
The state Education Department on Thursday canceled statewide tests for schoolchildren in Pennsylvania because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Officials said there would be no Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, called the PSSAs, or Keystone Exams. The PSSAs were scheduled to begin April 20, the Keystone Exams May 11.
About 128,000 students take the Keystone Exams and about 770,000 the PSSA every year.
The state also ended this year’s Pennsylvania Alternate System of Assessment, for students with significant cognitive disabilities.
The Keystone Exams, a high school graduation requirement, measure end-of-course proficiency in algebra, English and biology. The PSSAs, often used to compare the quality of school district instruction, are given to students in grades 3 through 8 for English and math, and for grades 4 through 8 in science.
Unemployment compensation filings eased off a bit in Pennsylvania. Wednesday’s claims hit 54,000, a day after reaching 70,000, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry, as businesses close and lay off or furlough workers.
Wolf on Monday ordered a shutdown of nonessential businesses, although some business owners are confused as to whether it includes them while others have defied it.
The state saw barely 12,000 filings in the entire first week of March, according to federal data.
TURNPIKE SERVICE PLAZAS REOPEN
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is reversing itself and will reopen all 17 of its service plazas starting Friday. The decision to close them drew heavy criticism from truckers.
Restrooms inside all service plazas will be open 24 hours, and outdoor portable toilets — brought in as replacements — will remain in place at the service plazas for about a week.
Limited food options also will be available at all service plazas, for take-out only. Gas stations and convenience stores inside the service plazas will continue to remain open 24 hours a day.
BEER AND LIQUOR
The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board began boarding up around two dozen of its now-closed wine and liquor stores that had a history of prior break-ins.
It also has advised beer distributors that they are free to remain open. Wolf’s administration, meanwhile, has promised a crackdown on bars and restaurants that fail to adhere to Wolf’s order to stop serving food and drink on-site, reiterating they are free to sell wine and beer to-go.
Separately, liquor industry trade groups are urging Wolf to reopen state-run liquor stores that have shut down due to the virus, or consider alternatives to closure.
Associated Press reporter Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia contributed to this report.
Pictured at top: Cafeteria worker Cathy Piluso hands out free meals at Bensalem High School in Bensalem, Pa., Thursday, March 19. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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