Coronavirus update: Wolf outlines tentative plan to restart Pa. economy

A person wearing a protective face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus walks in Philadelphia, Thursday, April 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A person wearing a protective face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus walks in Philadelphia, Thursday, April 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Updated 7:00 p.m.

Are you on the front lines of the coronavirus? Help us report on the pandemic.

To date, there are 29,866 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania, 78,467 in New Jersey, and 2,323 cases in Delaware. Philadelphia has 8,563 cases.

Pennsylvania’s death toll stands at 918, New Jersey’s at 3,840, and Delaware’s at 61. Philadelphia’s death toll is 298.

Wolf outlines tentative plan to restart Pa. economy, but offers limited specifics

In recent weeks, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf has been subject to heavy criticism from Republicans, who say his orders for businesses closures have been confusing, inconsistent and overly broad.

That tension hit a fever pitch this week when Wolf announced he would veto two GOP-sponsored bills that would have had the commonwealth follow a set of federal business-closure guidelines that are more permissive than Wolf’s, and would have let county governments develop their own coronavirus plans following those federal guidelines.

On Thursday, Wolf made what appeared to be an attempt to appease his critics. He announced a plan divided into three steps: “relief,” “reopening,” and “recovery.”

Broadly, the relief portion will include expanding Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, trying to “recapitalize” a business relief program to offer more assistance and offering low-interest loans to hospitals.

The reopening phase of the plan is vaguer. It stipulates that the approach will be “data-driven” but doesn’t say which data will drive it, and promises “guidance and recommendations” for employers, individuals and health care providers, but doesn’t say what that guidance is. It does say that reopening will require adequate personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing, which Pennsylvania so far does not appear to have. And it notes that large gathering should still be limited during the reopening process.

The recovery phase, meanwhile, reframes many of the policy priorities Wolf was supporting long before the coronavirus pandemic hit — like a $15 per hour minimum wage. It also calls for higher COVID-19-related worker protection standards, paid sick and family leave, expanded unemployment benefits and “vigorous” financial support for small businesses and other industries affected by the epidemic.

Mike Straub, a spokesman for House Republicans, didn’t specifically say whether the caucus approves of Wolf’s plan.

In a statement, he said only that members have been “diligently working for weeks to address the catastrophic results of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent decisions relating to the management of this terrible virus,” and that “without apology, we will continue to be the voice for the millions of Pennsylvanians currently out of work,” along with out-of-school children, taxpayers worried that “government will ask them to solve the revenue shortfall,” and frontline workers.

In a joint statement, Senate GOP Leader Jake Corman and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati said they were disappointed Wolf’s plan didn’t include more specifics, and that he hadn’t agreed to any of the bills they passed that would have allowed more businesses to operate.

“Pennsylvania ranks fifth in the nation in the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, but we rank first in the number of new unemployment compensation claims filed,” they wrote. “Our system has slowed to a crawl and our families are suffering as a result.”

They added that they are “open and willing” to work with Wolf going forward, but said they are “tired of hearing his rhetoric that he wants to work with us, while at the same time making unilateral decisions.”

Levine says apparent spike in new cases may be due to increased testing

Though the governor’s announcement was perhaps Harrisburg’s biggest news of the day, Health Secretary Rachel Levine also provided an update on the commonwealth’s latest coronavirus case numbers.

Friday’s report of 1,706 new COVID-19 cases — for a total of 29,441 cases — was “a larger increase … than we have [seen] in a couple of days,” Levine said.

She attributed that spike, at least in part, to a rash of new tests that have come back from private testers LabCorp and Quest.

“We have still bent the curve…certainly, from the initial FEMA data from three or four weeks ago and other modeling,” she said. “But COVID-19 continues to pose a significant public health threat in Pennsylvania.”

As they have been throughout the pandemic, Levine reported that long-term care facilities continue to be particularly hard-hit.

So far, 3,716 residents and 420 employees have tested positive. Those cases have been scattered among 321 different facilities, and 398 people in those facilities have died — 52.6% of the state’s total death rate.

Increasing testing remains a key benchmark in determining when Pennsylvania’s economy can start reopening, Levine said. She reported that state officials have been having conversations with several health systems, including UPMC and Lehigh Valley Health Network, about how to do that.

A Montgomery County testing site has reopened, and Levine is hoping a site in the northeast at the site of the Mohegan Sun Casino will open soon.

Cases in the city plateaued, but increasing in hospitals

The death toll increased by 34 since yesterday, bringing the total death toll from the novel coronavirus to 298, according to Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley. Half of the total deaths occurred in nursing homes.

Farley also reported 518 new cases, continuing a trend of about 500 new cases a day, further suggesting a plateau in the rate of new cases, despite a shortage of tests. Philadelphia now has 8,563 confirmed cases in the city.

The number of cases treated in hospitals is growing. The current number in the city is 852, and in the Southeastern Pennsylvania region it’s 1,633. Farley says that number is still increasing, and he gave no indication of when the hospitalizations are expected to peak.

Regionwide, one-third of both hospital beds and intensive care beds are still available. Farley warned “it’s very spotty,” since some hospitals may be at or near capacity. The Liacouras Center is ready, if needed, said Farley, but transferring patients between hospitals is preferable at the moment.

City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said the city’s testing for coronavirus is limited due to lack of swabs, processing capacity, and delays in reporting that can take two to seven days. Farley pointed to a lack of swabs used to collect samples as a particular point of frustration.

“I don’t understand why we can’t get more,” Farley said before making a plea to journalists “to run a story on why.”

While the president has announced a plan to “reopen” the economy, Farley said the limitations on more effective testing is also slowing down the reopening of the local economy.

“If we can’t test enough people to know where this virus is, then we can’t reopen the economy,” said Farley. “I hope other states who are thinking about reopening are considering that for themselves as well.”

Mayor Kenney also added reopening too soon could result in a “double hit” on the economy.

“I know that’s really tough for people,” said Farley. “Everybody is cooped up inside, and just wants this to be over with. I want it to be over with, too. But, I want to remind everybody, if we went back the way of living before, this would be much, much worse.”

PECO extends service relief to customers until at least June 1

PECO extended its suspension of service disconnections through at least June 1. The company will also continue to waive new late fees and reconnect customers who were disconnected.

“We recognize the impact of COVID-19 on our customers and communities has been greater than anyone could have imagined,” said Mike Innocenzo, PECO president and CEO. “We remain committed to every customer through difficult times, and we will continue to support our communities in need. During this pandemic, we will power through together.”

The company announced the new policies in mid-March as the reality of pandemic closed in on the city.

Domestic violence up in Montgomery County

According to an analysis of 911 calls and police reports in Montgomery County, domestic violence increased 8-9% since March 11. The increase includes two murders that happened this week, said Commissioner Kenneth Lawrence.

“Our need to stay at home and implement social distancing efforts during the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t mean you have to tolerate abuse,” said Lawrence.

The commissioner also said child abuse reports are down, likely because children are not around people who can report such issues.

Lawrence reminded residents that police are still responding to incidents, the district attorney is still prosecuting, the courts are still operating, and shelters are still open. More than 50 Protection From Abuse Orders were distributed since the crisis began.

Valerie Arkoosh, chair of the board of commissioners, also reported 111 new cases of coronavirus, bringing the total to 2,423, and seven deaths, bringing that total to 135.

Transport Workers Union to seek death benefits for families of deceased SEPTA employees

Transport Workers Union Local 234 wants death benefits for the families of SEPTA workers who have died from the coronavirus, union president Willie Brown says. The union plans to issue a request to bargain with the transportation authority Friday.

New York City’s MTA agreed to provide $500,000 to families of workers from that transportation authority, also TWU members, who have died.

“It’s the same fight,” said Brown via email.

SEPTA recently confirmed that Michael Hill, a Regional Rail conductor with more than 30 years on the job, had died from the virus. Hill’s passing brings the death toll among SEPTA employees to four.

SEPTA has 176 confirmed cases among its employees.

Coronavirus helpline handles 15,000-plus calls so far

The Greater Philadelphia Coronavirus Helpline has fielded more than 15,000 calls from people in the region with various concerns and questions about the virus and the illness it causes.

“We are doing what we can to keep people out of the hospital,” said Jeanette Trella, managing director of the Poison Control Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which provided infrastructure and resources in partnering with the city to set up the helpline. “If they do need to seek care, we are guiding them to do so in a way that is safe for our health care providers and community.”

Calls typically are from people who believe they are experiencing symptoms, those seeking advice on staying safe at an essential job, and individuals looking for guidance on how to protect their loved ones.

“The best tool we have to fight back against COVID-19 coronavirus is information,” Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said in a release Friday. “The Greater Philadelphia Coronavirus Helpline has been a critical component of Philadelphia’s efforts to flatten the curve, and we couldn’t be more appreciative.”

The helpline number is 800-722-7112.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal