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Governor closes schools in Philly suburb hit by virus

March 13, 2020 GMT
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Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania speaks at a new conference at Pennsylvania Emergency Management Headquarters where he said he was ordering schools and other facilities to close in a suburban Philadelphia county, Montgomery County, that has been hard-hit by the COVID-19, Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)
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Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania speaks at a new conference at Pennsylvania Emergency Management Headquarters where he said he was ordering schools and other facilities to close in a suburban Philadelphia county, Montgomery County, that has been hard-hit by the COVID-19, Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday ordered schools and other facilities closed in Montgomery County, a Philadelphia suburb of more than 800,000 people hard-hit by the COVID-19 outbreak, as he discouraged large gatherings of people statewide and canceled prison visits.

Wolf’s sweeping order comes as Pennsylvania’s cases of coronavirus grew, hitting 22 cases reported by the state Department of Health. More than half are in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania’s third most-populated county.

Wolf, a Democrat, said the order regarding Montgomery County takes effect Friday and lasts at least two weeks for all schools, as well as community centers, day cares, gyms and entertainment venues. Dozens of schools will close in Philadelphia as an indirect result of the order, the district there announced.

Critical infrastructure, including health care facilities and pharmacies, will remain open. But he urged “nonessential” retail establishments in the county to close — the King of Prussia Mall there touts itself as the second-largest shopping mall in the United States — and asked religious leaders to cooperate in preventing the spread of the virus.

Statewide, he urged gatherings of 250 people or more to be canceled or postponed.

“These actions may seem severe, but they are far less draconian than what we may have to do in the future if we don’t act now,” Wolf told a news conference at Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Harrisburg.

It came as major universities including Penn State sent students home, cancel spring athletics and schools and youth clubs cancel performances, competitions and sporting events across Pennsylvania, including statewide high school swimming, diving and basketball championships.

In Philadelphia, officials banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people, and discouraged gatherings of more than 250 people, but said they wanted schools to remain open, calling them are essential to food, shelter and safety for children. Still, 63 Philadelphia schools will close Friday, the district announced late Thursday night, as a result of the governor’s order for Montgomery County residents to avoid non-essential travel. The district said more than 2,000 of its 18,000 employees live in Montgomery County.

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A look at the latest developments in Pennsylvania:

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CASES

All of the state’s 22 cases of positive tests are in eastern Pennsylvania, up from 16 on Wednesday. Hardest hit is Montgomery County with 13 cases, while the first cases in Northampton County and Pike counties were reported Thursday.

Dozens of tests are pending. Most confirmed cases involve someone who came into contact with the new coronavirus in another state or country, and most people are at home in isolation, not at the hospital.

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, and death.

The vast majority of people recover.

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MONTGOMERY COUNTY

Wolf said his approach to Montgomery County will be continually evaluated. For now, it applies to all kinds of schools, including more than 20 public school districts in Montgomery County that educate more than 100,000 children. It also applies to higher education, day cares, adult care centers and private schools.

His administration said Wolf was acting under disaster emergency law that allows him to control movement and occupancy in a disaster area, but it could not say when a governor had last used that power. It also cited the Department of Health’s legal responsibility to “determine and employ the most efficient and practical means for the prevention and suppression of disease.”

Gas stations, grocery stores, government facilities, utilities and mass transit should continue to operate, he said, while no-visitor policies are to be adopted by prisons and nursing homes.

For its part, Montgomery County officials are prohibiting all mass gatherings of any size that are outside, or in temporary structures, events that typically require a permit.

They also implored the cancellation of any nonessential public and private gathering indoors, and for businesses to allow employees to work from home.

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ROMAN CATHOLIC SERVICES

The archbishop of Philadelphia, Nelson Perez, announced that, with Pennsylvania’s bishops, he was releasing Catholics from their obligation to attend Sunday Mass. He did say, however, that all regularly scheduled masses would remain open.

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SCHOOLS

School closings began radiating farther from the Philadelphia area.

Allentown schools said an employee showed symptoms and was tested for COVID-19. As a result, the district ordered schools closed Thursday and Friday for cleaning, the largest such district in Pennsylvania to take such a step. Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg closed several schools for a couple days of cleaning, while Wilson School District, outside Reading, canceled classes Friday and next week.

Meanwhile, Temple University in Philadelphia told its 39,000 students that instruction is going online Monday. Students in university housing have next week to leave and students who live off-campus were encouraged to go home.

More than a dozen other schools in Pennsylvania, including as Penn State, Pitt, St. Joseph’s and Penn, are taking similar steps.

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CANCELLATIONS

Public events were canceled in the state Capitol Complex and governor’s residence in Harrisburg and access to the Capitol was limited to employees and others with credentials. The policy, in effect indefinitely, applies to rallies, tours and receptions. The Legislature is scheduled to return to session next week.

The Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia said Thursday that it was canceling and rescheduling all events through March 31, while the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts said it would cancel all events at its venues through April 11.

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PRISONS AND VETERANS’ HOMES

The state Department of Corrections on Thursday canceled all inmate visits for two weeks, and said it will step up screening of employees and vendors, including taking temperatures and asking a series of questions. Anyone with flu-like symptoms or a temperature of 100.4 degrees or more will not be allowed in a state prison, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said in a statement.

The Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs closed its six veterans’ homes to visitors, but will allow exceptions for when a resident’s heath is deemed “severely critical.”

There are no confirmed cases in the veterans’ homes or prisons.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.