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Governor orders 1000s of businesses to shut down over virus

March 20, 2020 GMT
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Cafeteria worker Cathy Piluso hands out free meals at Bensalem High School in Bensalem, Pa., Thursday, March 19, 2020.Pennsylvania reported another big jump in confirmed coronavirus Thursday. The state Department of Health reported that cases topped 180, up 40%. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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Cafeteria worker Cathy Piluso hands out free meals at Bensalem High School in Bensalem, Pa., Thursday, March 19, 2020.Pennsylvania reported another big jump in confirmed coronavirus Thursday. The state Department of Health reported that cases topped 180, up 40%. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Gov. Tom Wolf issued a sweeping shutdown order to tens of thousands of “non-life-sustaining” businesses Thursday, decreeing they must close their physical locations by 8 p.m. to slow the spread of the coronavirus or face enforcement by state police and other government agencies.

Citing his authority under the state’s disaster declaration law, Wolf, a Democrat, ordered more than 150 types of businesses to close their physical locations, warning that enforcement against violators would begin Saturday. It was among the toughest measures yet taken by a U.S. governor in response to the virus pandemic. It also drew fierce condemnation from majority Republicans in the Legislature.

“I had hoped for voluntary compliance so our public safety officials could focus on assisting with the crisis,” Wolf said in a video statement. “Unfortunately we have not seen full compliance. We have no time to lose.”

Wolf said his order would be enforced by state troopers, local officials, the state Health and Agriculture departments and the Liquor Control Board. The two-term governor had previously said he would not use police for enforcement.

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.

Law enforcement will use discretion as they enforce the governor’s order, Wolf spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger said in a separate email, citing a “range of potential actions,” including notifying people about the closure order, warnings, citations and what she termed “mandatory closure.”

Republican lawmakers warned of economic devastation and accused Wolf of setting off panic. Senate GOP leaders late Thursday pushed Wolf for more transparency and the opportunity for business owners to appeal, while their House counterparts suggested they might challenge Wolf in the courts.

Among those 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 directive also prohibits elective health procedures as officials work to help hospitals create more capacity in anticipation of a surge in coronavirus patients.

Gene Barr, president and chief executive of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, predicted Wolf’s order — unprecedented in its scope — would cause alarm in the business community, but he acknowledged “this is a place where there’s no easy answers.”

“He is faced with a tough decision, doing something that we all know is going to have significant economic damage, balanced against the need to save lives,” Barr said.

The chamber will review the state’s list of businesses deemed nonessential and potentially work to get some reopened, Barr said, but will not challenge Wolf’s overall authority to mandate the closures.

“We’re going to do it. The governor said this is what you’re going to do, we’re going to do it, we’re going to comply,” Barr said.

The National Federation of Independent Business, a small-business advocacy group with 13,000 members in Pennsylvania, demanded to know the medical basis of the shutdown order, predicting it would cause personal and financial devastation. The group also said Wolf should have given companies more lead time to secure equipment and notify workers.

“We understand that there are necessary precautions that must be taken to protect life, but no other governor, even in states with many more cases and wider community spread, has taken this extreme action,” said Gordon Denlinger, NFIB state director in Pennsylvania.

John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the order was initially very ambiguous, causing panic over whether hotels would have to shutdown and put guests out within hours. But the industry received assurances from the Wolf administration that lodging facilities are exempt.

“It would have meant thousands of guests put out on the street, without anywhere go to,” Longstreet said. “We’ve got this resolved now.”

Wolf’s order came as Pennsylvania reported another big jump in confirmed coronavirus cases.

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 patents who contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

The department is lifting a regulation that prevents a hospital from adding beds without permission, and is trying to make sure that hospitals have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment and ventilators.

A look at the other developments in Pennsylvania:

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CASES

Confirmed cases in Pennsylvania rose by 52, the Pennsylvania Department of Health announced Thursday. 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.

Pennsylvania reported its first death Wednesday from the coronavirus.

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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.

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UNEMPLOYMENT FILINGS

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.

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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.

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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 had urged Wolf to reopen state-run liquor stores that have shutdown due to the virus, or consider alternatives to closure.

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Associated Press reporter Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

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