Coronavirus update: Gov. Wolf announces Bucks, Chester shutdowns; N.J. has second COVID-19 death

The weekend saw school closures and cancellations sweep across the region as the number of COVID-19 cases rose in all three states.

A nurse with ChristianaCare gives a free test for the coronavirus to a driver in Delaware. (Butch Comegys for WHYY)

A nurse with ChristianaCare gives a free test for the coronavirus to a driver in Delaware. (Butch Comegys for WHYY)

Updated 8:50 p.m.

In a tweet, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said a second state resident had died from COVID-19:

Sad to announce our second death of an individual with #COVID19 – a female in her 50s who was being treated at @CentraState Medical Center in Monmouth County.

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As of Saturday, the state had 69 cases. Nineteen new cases were announced at a press briefing earlier in the day. 

Delco, Montco come under Wolf’s shutdown order

Gov. Tom Wolf announced that two more counties will be under an order aimed at aggressively mitigating the number of coronavirus cases in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Currently, the state has 47 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Starting Sunday, March 15, Bucks and Chester counties will be under the same order as Delaware and Montgomery counties recommending that nonessential public spaces and businesses close. 

Essential infrastructure and retail, including grocery stories, gas stations and pharmacies, will stay open. 

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The state Department of Community and Economic Development issued guidelines Saturday for which types of businesses and spaces fall under the “nonessential” umbrella and are being urged to close. They include community centers, gyms, hair salons, nail salons and spas, casinos, concert venues, theaters, bars, sporting event venues and golf courses, and retail facilities including shopping malls. 

“If we can slow the spread of this virus, we can flatten the curve or we can keep an enormous number of Pennsylvanians from needing the kind of emergency treatment at the same time,” Wolf said. “It’s going to overwhelm our health care system. This is what we need to do and we need to do it now, by instead of having a steady stream of patients over time, health care providers can provide the highest level of care to everyone right now, and that’s going to save lives.”

Wolf urged that Pennsylvanians avoid public spaces if they can at this time. 

The governor also applauded businesses and organizations that are stepping up to the challenge to help prevent the spread of the virus. Many grocery stores are cutting their in-person hours while restaurants are offering more takeout options, despite the serious economical impact it will have on them. 

The Department of Community and Economic Development is also offering working-capital loans that can assist businesses affected by COVID-19 restrictions. Resources will be posted on the department website as they become available. 

PLCB to close Fine Wine & Good Spirits in Pa. suburbs

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board announced Saturday that effective Tuesday, March 17, all Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties will close indefinitely.

At this time, PLCB plans to continue to operate its e-fulfillment center, and people can still purchase alcohol online through the Fine Wine & Good Spirits website. There are 31 stores in Bucks County, 21 in Chester County, 19 in Delco, and 36 in Montco.

Toward the end of March, PLCB will re-evaluate this assessment to determine the length of the closure. Taxes and store profits — nearly $18.5 billion since the agency’s inception — go into the state’s General Fund, which is used to finance the commonwealth’s schools, health and human services, law enforcement, and public safety initiatives. 

Election issues in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania primary is a little more than a month away, on April 28. Wolf said during Saturday’s press conference that it’s too far away at this point to make a decision on postponing that, as Louisiana did for its planned April 4 primary election. One thing that’s been discussed, Wolf said, is relaxing the state’s mail-in ballot laws. Those ballots currently cannot be counted until the polls close on Election Day, but Wolf said there are discussions going on to relax that so ballots submitted days ahead can be counted earlier as to avoid delayed results.

“I want to keep our democracy alive,” Wolf said.

As for Bucks County’s special election for the state’s 18th Legislative District, scheduled for Tuesday, March 17, Wolf said, “It’s safe to say we will move that one back,” but that no clear decision has been made yet.  

Turzai rejects call to delay Bensalem special election

Although Gov. Tom Wolf issued a shutdown order for Bucks County because of the spread of the coronavirus, state House Speaker Mike Turzai has declined to postpone a special election in Bensalem that is scheduled for Tuesday, March 17.

On Friday, Wolf said holding the election would be a bad idea and indicated there was agreement among state leaders that it should be postponed. And on Saturday, he included Bucks in the list of counties in which he is ordering nonessential businesses to close.

But to delay the election, Wolf, a Democrat, needed cooperation from Turzai, an Allegheny County Republican. 

In a statement Saturday, Turzai said that three special elections scheduled for Tuesday — in Bucks County, Westmoreland County, and a district that includes parts of Butler and Mercer Counties — would go on.

“The impact of the COVID-19 virus is being felt by all of us, and I applaud the statewide efforts to practice social distancing and increased disinfecting in public spaces. These same practices will be in place on Election Day, but they do not require the rescheduling of the special elections,” Turzai said. “When you consider that absentee ballots have already been applied for and returned, these elections are already underway.”

The race for House District 18 in Bensalem pits Republican K.C. Tomlinson against Democrat Harold Hayes. They are vying to replace Republican Gene DiGirolamo, who resigned to become a county commissioner.

— Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA

No news on statewide N.J. school closures; Corrections Dept. suspends visitations

During a press call including other New Jersey state officials Saturday afternoon, Gov. Phil Murphy announced 19 new positive COVID-19 cases, bringing the state total to 69.

Murphy said that, at this time, the state is not ready to announce its plan for statewide school closures, though the number of districts that are shuttering for at least two weeks grows each day. 

“Some of these steps that look very intoxicating have elements to them that we just have to make sure we are prepared for, and that we don’t have unintended consequences,” Murphy said. “So the kid that’s only reliable meal any given day is through the school, the implications for day care, including our health care workers and our first responders … we’ve got to make sure that at every school district we have our arms around and are prepared for those implications and more.”

State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said there are aggressive actions being taken in Bergen County, which has seen the most COVID-19 cases in New Jersey so far. She said health officials are working closely with the county to start a “widespread testing center” at Bergen County Community College. 

Bergen County officials have also began to close large public spaces and businesses, including movie theaters, the Bergen County Zoo, and the American Dream mall in East Rutherford. 

State officials are also working with the New Jersey Hospital Association and the medical community to expand testing statewide. 

Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks announced the 30-day suspension of visits at all N.J. correctional facilities. 

“We know that families are critical support to the population in our care,” Hicks said. “We also realize that ensuring the health and safety of our inmate population, our residents and staff are of paramount importance during this health crisis.”

To alleviate the impact of this suspension, Hicks said, the Department of Corrections is increasing access to free phone calls and free postage. The ban does not apply to visits with legal counsel. 

He added that the Corrections Department has been conducting COVID-19 screening as part of the regular health assessment during the intake process for new arrivals to the prison’s intake process. Temperature scans are also being done by medical staff with anyone who enters the facilities, and there are restrictions on prison transfers of those who present any COVID-19 symptoms. 

Persichilli said nine New Jersey residents who were aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship will arrive at Newark Liberty Airport this weekend. They will be screened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention upon their arrival.

The 15-day cruise has become the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus crisis, as thousands of people in California and beyond became infected due to a spread by a passenger with COVID-19. 

School District of Philadelphia announces free meals plan

The School District of Philadelphia announced Saturday a full list of the 30 schools where families can pick up “grab and go” breakfasts and lunches while all public schools in the city — and statewide — are closed for two weeks. These sites will be open 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. You can find the full listing as well as the list of 50 city-owned Parks & Recreation facilities that will be open for limited programming and meals here. 

The Parks & Rec facilities, which include gyms and recreation centers, will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. These sites will be spaces for students 18 and under to come in for limited drop-in activities and meals at 3 p.m. The facilities will be staffed by Parks & Rec employees, but should not be considered a substitute for child care. 

Parks & Rec’s six older-adult centers will open on a regular schedule (8 a.m. to 4 p.m.) for meal service. 

With the exception of those facilities, all other Parks & Rec locations will be closed citywide starting Monday, March 16, including environmental education centers and ice rinks. A map of the open locations is also available here. 

The department serves over 1 million meals per year to children in the city, according to Parks Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell.   

New details about COVID-19 in the city

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley provided some details about the new city case announced Saturday, bringing the total in the city to four. The woman in her 30s had recently traveled to an affected area. She is in self-isolation at home.

Farley added that little by little, the city and state are gradually increasing their availability of COVID-19 testing.

Laboratories that are now providing testing include:

– The state Health Department’s laboratory in Exton 

– Two commercial laboratories through LabCorp and Quest

– Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia 

– University of Pennsylvania’s hospital’s laboratory is also able to do a very limited amount of testing. Currently, it’s only available to the hospital’s patients who are critically ill, but Farley said that capacity may change over time.  This lab is not taking referrals at this time.

Farley said that Friday the city received 15 test results, 12 of which were negative and three that were positive. 

“We know we aren’t testing enough people,” Farley said. “We want to test more each time. We want to track that over time as a measure of how much we’ve been able to improve the accessibility of testing.”

He said city health officials had a phone call Friday with several managers of nursing homes in Philadelphia to ensure they are taking extra precautions to protect their residents. The facilities’ managers were told they should not be allowing any visitors at this time, and that staff should be screened for COVID-19 symptoms before each shift. 

City Managing Director Brian Abernathy also announced that at the end of service Saturday, the Philadelphia Free Library system will close for public service. Staff will still be expected to report for work on Monday, March 16.

Pa. cases up to 47, N.J. at 69, Del. at 6 

The weekend saw school closures and cancellations sweep across the Philadelphia region as the number of COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware all increased.

As of Saturday morning, Pennsylvania had 47 cases, including the first two in Chester County; New Jersey had 69 cases; Delaware had six, all connected to a spread occurring across the University of Delaware community.

The two new Delaware cases include a woman older than 50 and a man older than 60, both from New Castle County, according to the Delaware Division of Public Health. Both are self-isolating at home.

“The additional cases involving individuals from the University of Delaware community are concerning, but we will monitor the individuals with COVID-19 and identify their close contacts,” said DPH Director Dr. Karyl Rattay. “DPH is working closely with the CDC, hospitals, clinicians, and other medical providers to proactively identify and respond to any possible cases of COVID-19.”

Friday evening, Del. Gov. John Carney announced all public schools in the state will be closed starting Monday, March 16, through March 27 “out of an abundance of caution.”

Over the next two weeks, Carney said, state officials will work with school leaders and public health experts to create a plan as the viral outbreak continues.

“We will specifically prepare for the potential impact of extended school closures on Delaware children and their families,” Carney said. The governor also added that school leaders should “undertake a deep cleaning of their facilities during the two-week closure.”

Carney’s announcement came only a few hours after Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf announced all of the state’s traditional public and charter schools would close for two weeks.

Wolf said school districts and charters will not face penalties if they do not meet the required 180 instructional days for this school year.

The federal government has cleared Pennsylvania to serve meals to low-income students in “non-congregate settings” while the closures persist — meaning that children who rely on free lunch and breakfast may still have opportunities to receive food during this shutdown.

City Health Department announces helpline

The Greater Philadelphia Coronavirus Helpline, 1-800-722-7112, is a 24/7 service anyone in the Philadelphia region can use to get answers to some questions and concerns regarding COVID-19.

The call line is staffed by medical experts and can help answer questions regarding symptoms and risk factors for the virus, what to do if you think you may have been exposed, testing resources and recommendations for social distancing.

“Aside from washing your hands and staying away from people who are sick, one of the most important things people can do in a pandemic is to listen to trusted experts,” said Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley. “While the Health Department and CDC are great resources, we know that sometimes people have questions that need to be answered by a trained health care professional.”

Parkway museums, Adventure Aquarium closing

In a joint statement Friday, March 13, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the Barnes Foundation, the Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Museum of Art announced they would be closed to the public and would postpone or cancel public programming and events for at least two weeks. 

They said the decision was guided by the science and official recommendations for social distancing, rather than infection or coronavirus exposure at any of the institutions. 

Across the river in Camden,   Adventure Aquarium said Saturday that it would close to the public Monday, March 16 through Friday, March 27.

A note posted on the aquarium’s website says: “Our devoted animal husbandry teams and essential personnel will continue to maintain the vital systems and processes that ensure the highest level of care for the animals and aquatic life here at Adventure Aquarium. These team members have been trained on hygiene policies, social distancing methods, and have access to personal protective gear. Additional team members, who cannot work remotely, will receive paid leave.”

12 p.m. Saturday

Some federal court trials postponed

Some federal court trials in the Philadelphia region are being postponed. U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania announced that it has continued jury trials, both civil and criminal, until April 13. In addition, any public gatherings in U.S. courthouses are suspended, including tours, mock trials, and naturalization ceremonies.

Grand juries will continue to meet.

In a statement, the district court wrote that it is aware of a defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial, however “the ends of justice served by granting a continuance outweigh the best interest of the public and each defendant in a speedy trial.”

Delaware County distancing effort

Gov. Wolf announced on Friday that Delaware County will join Montgomery County in a strict social distancing effort to curb the number of coronavirus cases. Delaware County saw an increase to six COVID-19 cases as of Saturday.

In those two counties, state officials are asking for all people to refrain from nonessential travel. There will be no visitors allowed in any correctional facilities or nursing homes for the next two weeks.

The governor recommends that all nonessential retail facilities — movie theaters, gyms and shopping malls — close, but supermarkets, pharmacies and gas stations can remain open. Essential services such as police, fire and emergency services will still be available.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, 34 people are under self-quarantine in Delaware County — including 11 people incarcerated at the county jail — after a jail employee tested positive for coronavirus. None of the quarantined people have shown symptoms so far, according to the GEO Group, which runs the prison.

“We need to stress to you all in the strongest terms possible that this is so important that we all heed this guidance and that we listen to the federal government, state and the county guidelines,” Delaware County Council member Elaine Schaefer said during a Friday press conference. “We can learn from the other countries and we can stay ahead of the spread of this virus. We have a really narrow window right now where we can get ahead of this, we can take measures now to prevent this virus from rapidly spreading.”

Schaefer added that starting Monday, March 16, the county courts and government will operate with a reduced staff, as they ask nonessential employees to work remotely. The time frame on how long this lasts is fluid, Schaefer said, as the coronavirus situation changes rapidly.

Government services will continue, but Schaefer asks for residents to postpone nonessential visits to the county court and government buildings until the crisis ends.

Guidance on support providers

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services announced Saturday its operational recommendations for long-term support providers for people with intellectual disabilities and autism.

The state’s Office of Long-Term Living has recommended these providers exercise and promote hygienic practices, review agency back-up plans and infection control procedures, and report all suspected cases of COVID-19 to the Department of Health and the long-term living office.

Providers should contact the long-term living office prior to making any changes to their business practices during this time, such as suspending services at a service location such as an adult day or structured day habilitation program, reducing or eliminating the provision of community-based activities, restricting individuals’ abilities to receive services based on their health status, and restricting visitors to facilities.

The Long-term Living Office and the DHS Office of Developmental Programs have also submitted applications for emergency modifications to their waiver programs to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

New Jersey school closures ‘inevitable’

In New Jersey, cases of COVID-19 nearly doubled since Thursday, increasing by 21 to a total of 50. One person died from the virus earlier this week.

Gov. Phil Murphy said long-term school closures in New Jersey are “inevitable,” but he held off on a statewide order like those issued in Pennsylvania, Delaware and several other states,  to give districts more time to prepare.

“We must ensure that we have plans for a child’s well-being, food security, and remote learning as we close down our schools,” Murphy said at his first in-person news conference since a successful surgery to have a tumor removed from his kidney.

He later clarified that a statewide school shutdown could occur in “a matter of days.”

More than 350 public districts across the Garden State have already closed or plan to close, at least temporarily, in response to the spreading coronavirus. Bergen and Burlington counties are the only counties to have closed all schools in all public districts. The state is listing all school closures on its website.

WHYY’s Nicholas Pugliese, Avi Wolfman-Arent and Peter Crimmins contributed reporting.

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