Coronavirus update: Pa. businesses push for protection from consumer lawsuits

Leaders from Pennsylvania’s business, manufacturing, and health care industries are calling on the state to broaden liability protections to companies during the pandemic.

The front line of defense against COVID-19 in Chester County

The front line of defense against COVID-19 in Chester County is Medical Strike Team Iroquois. Staff Sgt. Kursty Campbell (Center Forward), Pfc. Josh OShea (Center Left), Pfc. Ryan Whispell (Right), Pfc. Michael Bonenberger (Left), are all members of TF Iroquois. (Master Sgt. George Roach/Pa. National Guard)

Updated at 5:15 p.m.

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Pennsylvania had 667 new positive COVID-19 cases Thursday, the most recent data available, a 0.91% increase in total cases over the previous day. Over the past seven days, the commonwealth has recorded an increase of 4,968 cases, or 7.17%.

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The state has recorded 74,220 positive cases in total.

Statewide, Pennsylvania has a total of 5,373 deaths resulting from COVID-19. The Department of Health says this is the result of “continued work to reconcile data from various sources,” and that the deaths have occurred “over the past several weeks.”

Philadelphia reported 175 new positives Thursday. The city has recorded 22,150 cases so far, and 1,258 deaths.

Pa. businesses push for protection from consumer lawsuits during COVID-19

Leaders from Pennsylvania’s business, manufacturing, and health care industries are calling on the state to broaden liability protections to companies during the pandemic, saying without them economic growth will be hampered by an onslaught of lawsuits. 

“[We need] targeted, temporary, safe harbor protection for those health care facilities, professionals, and businesses who are following the guidelines,” said Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry President Gene Barr on a press call Thursday. “So they can begin to bring their businesses back, so we can put the economy back together.”

Earlier this month Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order providing temporary immunity from lawsuits to health care providers. Those on the call Thursday said those protections were insufficient, because they don’t extend to businesses themselves. 

Organizers pointed to posts on social media by trial lawyers seemingly preparing lawsuits against nursing homes in the state, as well as a number of lawsuits recently filed by customers of Giant Eagle, a Pittsburgh area grocery store chain, over the company’s policy requiring shoppers to wear masks. 

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“Giant Eagle is being sued for … complying with the governor’s order,” Barr said. “These are the kinds of things we are looking at. This is not protecting the bad actors.” 

Top Republicans in Congress have demanded broad liability protections for businesses in any future stimulus package. 

Democrats, and some Pennsylvania malpractice lawyers, argue that these protections would shield bad actors, and make it harder to enforce safety rules. 

Wolf’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Philly preparing to start contact tracing 

Philadelphia hopes to have everything in place for its contract-tracing system “over the next few weeks.”

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Thursday the city is in the process of developing and piloting protocols for the system. It is also setting up software, as well hiring people to perform the tracing.

“This process involves a lot of information flowing from many different entities so you need to have good software in order to track it all accurately,” said Farley during a virtual news conference.

The city will draw on three pools of people to complete the tracing. They are:

  • Paid staff hired through nonprofits. Functionally, these people will be city staff, said Farley.
  • Employees of partnering health care organizations. For now, the city has only reached an agreement with Penn Medicine, which, in coordination with the city, will do tracing for its patients.
  • Volunteers, including public health students.

The program is coming together as the city prepares to move from “red” to “yellow” under the state’s color-coded reopening plan.

The city recorded 175 new positive cases of COVID-19, bringing the total to 22,150. Ten new deaths were reported, bringing the total to 1,258.

Farley has said that the city would reconsider moving into the yellow phase if its daily numbers suddenly spiked.

“If the numbers doubled, I would be very concerned,” he said.

Montco still seeking extension for mail-in ballots ahead of Pa. primary

Montgomery County is appealing a court decision denying its request to extend the state’s deadline for mail-in ballots by a week for next month’s primary election. Many are taking advantage of the mail-in option to avoid having to vote in person during the pandemic.

Commonwealth Court is now weighing the county’s emergency petition, which argues that the deadline needs to be extended to avoid some residents being disenfranchised if they don’t get their ballots in time to have their vote counted.

Mail-in ballots must be received by counties by 8 p.m. on June 2, the day of the primary.

“I have not gotten an update on where that stands in terms of that court,” said Dr. Val Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery Board of Commissioners, during a virtual news conference.

The appeal comes after the county mistakenly sent 2,000 voters the wrong ballot. Republican voters were sent ballots meant for registered Democrats and vice-versa, according to media reports.

It also comes as the county is contending with an uptick in the daily number of positive cases of COVID-19. Despite an overall decline, the county saw a 26% increase over the last two weeks, said Arkoosh.

The number of hospitalizations due to the virus has also increased recently. To date, a total sits at 250. It was closer to 210 three days ago, said Arkoosh.

“This virus is still out there and it is still causing people to become sick enough that they do require hospitalization,” said Arkoosh.

The county reported 92 new positive cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the total to 6,779 since the start of the pandemic. Another 10 residents have died from the virus, bringing the county’s death toll to 675.

Montco courts to restart some proceedings next week

Montgomery County is lifting its freeze on holding sentencing hearings. Starting June 1, up to six hearings will be held each day, according to a court order.

The courtroom will be staffed with one court clerk and one court reporter, along with the judge, though the clerk and the reporter can participate remotely if the judge allows it.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys, as well as defendants who are not incarcerated, are expected to appear in person. Clients who are in jail, unless there’s an objection, will appear virtually by video.

Unless the presiding judge gives the green light, all witnesses are to appear via video conference, according to the order.

The county will also resume holding hearings for guilty pleas on designated “plea days.” For these hearings, defense attorneys and their incarcerated clients may appear virtually using Zoom. Defendants who are not in jail must appear in person.

Everyone appearing in person will undergo a health screening and temperature check. They will also have to wear facemasks in the courthouse in Norristown.

It’s unclear when the county will begin holding jury trials again.

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Chesco launches COVID-19 toolkit to prep residents for reopening process

Chester County has launched an online toolkit designed to prepare residents and businesses for June 5, the day the county is slated to move from “red” to “yellow” under the state’s color-coded reopening plan.

“We’re frequently seeing online resources that point you to yet another online resource. Rather than sending you down the rabbit hole of information, we are curating best practices specifically for our county’s business and organization sectors,” said County Commissioner Josh Maxwell in a statement.

Dubbed “Restore Chester County,” the toolkit is based on federal, state and county guidelines for “everything from agriculture and office settings, to restaurants, personal care, schools, religious organizations and more,” according to the county’s website.

Bucks County prepares for 100,000 mail-in ballots 

This weekend through Monday, Bucks County is providing boxes where absentee ballots can be dropped off, instead of mailed.

The Bucks County Board of Elections is placing boxes, secured by guards, in three locations throughout the county, Saturday through Monday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

  • The Lower Bucks Government Services Center, 7321 New Falls Road, Levittown
  • The Bucks County Administration Building, 55 E. Court St., Doylestown
  • The Upper Bucks Government Services Center, 261 California Road, Quakertown

Bucks County Chief Clerk of Elections Gail Humphrey said her office has processed about 100,000 applications for mail-in ballots, and expects to complete processing of all received applications by today. In a normal presidential election, the office would process about 6,000 mail-ins.

Mail-in ballots, regardless of postmark, must be received by June 2. Humphrey says the ballot boxes are there to help people bypass the postal system and submit their ballots in a timely fashion.

Only the person voting can drop their ballot into the box. By law, an individual cannot drop off ballots for others.

For those who plan on voting in person, Humphrey says polling places will be stocked with face masks and six-foot markers on the floor to indicate social distancing. Wearing a mask will be required if voting in person.

WHYY’s Peter’s Crimmins contributed reporting.

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