Wolf issues stay-at-home order for hardest-hit counties, extends school closures

Coronavirus

This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the virus that causes COVID-19. The sample was isolated from a patient in the U.S. (NIAID-RML via AP)

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 the 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.

In a video news conference Monday, Wolf said the administration wanted to take a “measured approach” to the crisis and expressed hope that if the coronavirus could be largely 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,” including trips to the grocery store and the pharmacy. He did not say how it would be enforced.

Wolf 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. The governor 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 Monday. “I won’t pretend that things will not get worse before they get better.”

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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.

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ENFORCEMENT BEGINS

Enforcement of Wolf’s order to close down the physical locations of businesses deemed “non-life-sustaining” began Monday morning.

Troopers are aiming for voluntary compliance, “not coming in with a hammer at 8:01” a.m., when the enforcement period began, state police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski said Monday.

“Our goal is not to write a giant pile of citations,” he said.

Tarkowski said people who want to report a business that remains open 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.

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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.

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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.

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CASES

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.

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STATE HOUSE

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.

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Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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