School closures extended; Wolf issues stay-at-home order
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday ordered residents of Pennsylvania’s hardest-hit areas to stay home for at least two weeks to help combat the spread of the new coronavirus that has already sickened hundreds and caused six deaths statewide.
He also extended a statewide schools shutdown through at least April 6.
Noting that Philadelphia has already ordered residents to remain home, Wolf issued his own stay-at-home order for four counties around the city; for Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh; and for Monroe County in the Pocono Mountains.
Together, the seven counties account for 75% of the state’s confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Wolf implored residents to take heed of his order to stay at home.
“You need to ask yourself, do I really need to make this trip? Or am I going to put someone else’s life in jeopardy by making this trip? Am I going to be saving a life by staying home?” Wolf said.
Speaking at a video news conference, Wolf said the administration wanted to take a “measured approach” to the crisis. He expressed hope that if the coronavirus could largely be contained to the most heavily impacted counties, he could avoid extending his stay-at-home order to the entire state.
The order was to take effect at 8 p.m. Monday.
In all, 5.5 million people, or more than 40% of the state’s population, have been ordered to stay home. Wolf said residents will be able to leave their homes for “allowable activities.”
Under Wolf’s order, people in the affected counties may leave their homes to work at a business that’s still open, go to the grocery store or pharmacy, visit a doctor, care for a relative, get outside exercise or for several other reasons outlined in the order.
Wolf’s office said law enforcement would focus on making residents aware of the order rather than on enforcement.
The governor has imposed a series of progressively tougher measures in the face of a global pandemic that state officials say threatens to swamp hospitals and spike the death toll. He has already closed schools and ordered all “non-life-sustaining” businesses to shutter their physical locations, an edict that state police and other government agencies began enforcing Monday morning after Wolf beat back a pair of legal challenges.
“The novel coronavirus has halted life as we knew it,” Wolf said. “I won’t pretend that things will not get worse before they get better.”
SCHOOL SHUTDOWN EXTENDED
The Department of Education said school buildings are now scheduled to reopen for administrators, teachers and other staff on April 7. Under the plan announced Monday, students would return to school April 9.
The department said the statewide closure could be extended again “to save lives and stop the spread of COVID-19.”
Students have been home since March 16.
Enforcement of Wolf’s order to close down the physical locations of businesses deemed “non-life-sustaining” began Monday morning.
A state police spokesman said it appears the order has seen wide compliance.
Troopers are aiming for voluntary compliance, “not coming in with a hammer at 8:01” a.m., when the enforcement period began, spokesman Ryan Tarkowski said.
“Our goal is not to write a giant pile of citations,” he said.
State police expect to release data on the first day of enforcement on Tuesday.
Tarkowski said people who want to report a business that remains open in possible violation of Wolf’s order should use non-emergency numbers to call state police or local police. “Please don’t call 911,” Tarkowski said.
Philadelphia got hundreds of calls for enforcement against businesses that were not complying with Wolf’s shutdown order. Officials said the city’s licenses and inspections department was checking on those businesses.
The Wolf administration has been sorting through nearly 10,000 waiver requests of its shutdown order, saying its only consideration is health and safety.
COURT DISMISSES LAWSUIT ON NONESSENTIAL BUSINESSES
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by a gun shop that challenged Wolf’s authority to shutter businesses deemed nonessential.
Without comment, a narrow majority of the state’s high court late Sunday denied the petition by a gun shop, a gun purchaser and a law firm to have Wolf’s shutdown order thrown out. The lawsuit had claimed Wolf’s edict violated the Second Amendment right to bear arms and other constitutional rights.
In a dissenting statement joined by two other justices, Justice David Wecht said Wolf’s order amounts to “an absolute and indefinite prohibition upon the acquisition of firearms by the citizens of this commonwealth — a result in clear tension with the Second Amendment” and the state constitution. He called on Wolf to make some allowance for the in-person sale of firearms.
WHAT’S OPEN, CLOSED
Businesses that remain open to the public include grocery stores, pharmacies, hotels and motels, beer distributors, laundromats and gas stations. Restaurants are only open for take-out orders. The open list also includes farms, mines, food production and some manufacturing.
Car dealers, clothing stores and other retailers, salons and entertainment venues are among those on the shuttered list.
On Monday, Pennsylvania officials extended the closure of facilities in state parks and forests until April 30. People with reservations for campgrounds, cabins and other overnight accommodations will get refunds.
The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said trails, lakes, forests, roads and parking areas remain open to the public, but urged people to practice social distancing and avoid crowded parking lots and trailheads.
The closure includes restrooms.
Pennsylvania health officials on Monday reported 165 new cases of COVID-19 infection in Pennsylvania, for a total of more than 640 in 34 counties. They reported a total of six deaths, up from two a day earlier.
For most people, the virus 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.
The state House of Representatives convened a non-voting session Monday, and the speaker assigned proposals to get emergency assistance for small businesses and to allow for electronic notarization of documents to committees. The State Government Committee took a preliminary procedural step that could lead to the April 28 primary being delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania.