Coronavirus updates: N.J. school closures ‘inevitable’ as all Pa., Del. schools close for 2 weeks

Gov. Wolf’s decision came during a frenzied afternoon in which counties and districts across the Philadelphia region announced an intent to shutter schools.

Nurses stand at a COVID testing area

Nurses with ChristianaCare wait for the next person to be tested for coronavirus during a free drive-through area at the Riverfront complex in downtown Wilmington, Delaware on Friday, March 13, 2020. (Butch Comegys for WHYY)

Updated 8:11 p.m.

Delaware schools will close for two weeks to prepare for the spread of coronavirus in the state. Gov. John Carney sent a letter to district superintendents and charter school leaders late Friday.

“Over the next two weeks, the state of Delaware will work with school leaders and public health experts to create a plan for Delaware students and educators as this coronavirus outbreak continues,” Carney wrote. “Public school leaders should also undertake a deep cleaning of their facilities during the two-week closure.”

Starting Monday, schools will remain closed through March 27.

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The state Division of Public Health has not recommended that school close in part because there is no evidence of community spread of the virus. “Nevertheless, out of an abundance of caution, I am directing Delaware public schools to close,” Carney said.

The state is still working on how to provide school meals and other social services, especially for children from “disadvantaged communities,” Carney wrote.

All four confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state are connected to a professor at the University of Delaware.

– Mark Eichmann

New Jersey sees sharp increase

In New Jersey, confirmed 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.

Governor 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 and at least seven 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.

More than half were “professional development” closures so staff could prepare for remote instruction, Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said. The rest were for precautionary cleaning or due to concerns about exposure to the virus by someone in the school community.

Bergen and Burlington counties are the only counties to have closed all its public districts. The state is listing all school closures on its website.

To reduce people in Motor Vehicle Commission offices, Murphy also announced an automatic two-month extension for all drivers licenses, vehicle registrations and car inspections that are due for renewal by May 31.

-Nicholas Pugliese

Planning ahead for Philly hospitals 

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said that because hospitals in the city have limited capacity to accommodate a surge of patients made ill by the virus, his department is actively working to secure extra space to treat or quarantine individuals.

The Health Department has been in conversation with Joel Freedman, the owner of Hahnemann University Hospital, about using the empty building if needed. The 495-bed safety-net hospital closed its doors last summer.

“Broad Street Healthcare Properties and Mr. Freedman told the city they would be honored to assist the community and offered their help to the city should it be necessary for the shuttered medical center to be used in this health care crisis,” Sam Singer, a representative for Broad Street Healthcare Properties, said in an email. The beds and medical equipment at Hahnemann were auctioned off as a part of the bankruptcy of the hospital’s parent company, but Singer said the situation could be addressed.

“Mr. Freedman and his company are standing by to be of assistance if called upon to help the city and community,” Singer said, adding that no details about cost to the city had been discussed.

Farley added that though nothing is up and running yet, his department is in conversation with a number of hospitals working on drive-through testing models similar to the one ChristianaCare offered Friday in Delaware.

-Nina Feldman

Pa. closes county assistance offices in Delco, Montco for 2 weeks

The Pennsylvania Department of Health and Human Services announced Friday that county assistance offices in Delaware and Montgomery counties will be closed for in-person business for the next two weeks.

These offices provide benefits and caseworkers for programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), cash assistance, and Medical Assistance.

Benefits can still be issued, and eligibility determined online or by mail while the offices are closed.

“Public assistance programs can be vital during a public health crisis, and resources are still available to ensure eligible Pennsylvanians are connected to the programs they need,” said DHS Secretary Teresa Miller.

She encouraged those who can to use the myCOMPASS mobile app to manage their benefits until the offices reopen for face-to-face meetings at the end of March.

-Nina Feldman

Some local 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.”

-Peter Crimmins

 Pa. schools closed statewide

All Pennsylvania’s schools will close for the next two weeks due to the spread of the coronavirus statewide, Gov. Tom Wolf announced on Friday.

Wolf’s decision came during a frenzied afternoon in which counties and districts across the Philadelphia region announced their intent to shutter schools.

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

-Avi Wolfman-Arent

The latest numbers from the Pennsylvania Department of Health show there are now 41 presumed positive COVID-19 cases.

Most of those cases are concentrated in Montgomery County, where 18 people either have or are believed to have the coronavirus. On Thursday, Wolf recommended that all nonessential gathering places, including stores and churches, to shut down for at least two weeks. Critical retail businesses such as supermarkets, pharmacies, and gas stations will remain open.

Delaware County has six cases of coronavirus, Bucks County has three, Chester County has one and Philadelphia also now has three.

There are roughly 130 other cases statewide pending diagnosis.

State Health Secretary Rachel Levine said there will be a relaxation of state guidelines for testing, meaning more liberal than official CDC guidelines.

Now, a doctor can send a test to a commercial lab for processing, bypassing the state Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This will increase the quantity and speed of testing.

“Now that you can order through commercial laboratories, it’s much easier to just do the test. That will continue to improve,” said Health Secretary Rachel Levine. “But the country is not at a place where they can do countrywide, population-based testing.”

However, there are still screening restrictions in place: Only patients meeting symptoms criteria are to be tested.

-Peter Crimmins

Coronavirus pushes NASDAQ PHLX to secure backup trading floor in South Philly

NASDAQ, the world’s first electronic stock exchange, is one of many American stock exchange corporations taking wide-scale preventative measures against the coronavirus pandemic.

The Philadelphia Navy Yard will now serve as a backup trading floor for the options trading platform, NASDAQ PHLX, which operates a hybrid floor-based trading system on Walnut Street.

Formerly known as the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, before it was acquired by NASDAQ in 2008, it is the oldest stock exchange in the country.

“NASDAQ, the equities market, is fully electronic – we do not need a physical floor,” said NASDAQ spokesman Joe Christinat. “NASDAQ PHLX options market has a floor in Philly, and we have, as one contingency, the ability to throw a switch and work from the Navy Yard.”

Gone are the days of traditional stock exchanges with human brokers working on physical floors. Today, most trading happens electronically, with human brokers mostly reserved for large institutional investors.

In the event that NASDAQ’s backup floor at the Navy Yard is compromised in any way by the spread of COVID-19, PHLX can also be run electronically. But the virus does pose some problems for electronic trading, which requires a large amount of computer power to operate.

Electronic traders can not always work remotely from home because network speeds and adequate computer memory must be available to manage these kinds of large scale transactions.

But Kevin Kennedy, who oversees product management of equities, options and futures at NASDAQ, said the health of the corporation’s clients, employees and visitors is their number one concern and the option to work outside of the office is certainly a viable one.

“One of the things we’ve done internally at NASDAQ is invoking a work-from-home policy,” Kennedy said. “Our tools are exceptional. I’m sitting here at my house right now with four monitors, laptops, and four other devices working. I am in touch with our London, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York offices all within seconds.”

NASDAQ is leveraging their state-of-the-art remote working capabilities to allow employees to practice social distancing amid this public health crisis. For staff and clients who must report to the Philadelphia trading floor, their health is being monitored on a daily basis.

In the unfortunate event that independent traders are not able to access the trading floor, Kennedy said NASDAQ is ready.

“We’re telling them, ‘bring your laptops home, do anything you need to do,’” Kennedy said. “For all we know, we can’t get into the building on Monday.”

-Sojourner Ahebee

UDel announces campus closure

The University of Delaware is closing all student housing run by the school. The decision comes after the Newark campus became the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the state, with four people connected to the school coming down with COVID-19.

“Everyone wishes that the situation could be otherwise, but we believe this is the most responsible decision for everyone’s well-being,” university president Dennis Assanis said in a letter to the campus community.

Students who had previously arranged to stay on campus during spring break must move out of their rooms by 10 p.m. Tuesday, March 17. All other resident students have to be moved out of their rooms by 10 p.m. Sunday, March 22.

For students who can’t return home due to international travel restrictions or serious personal reasons, the school will make special on-campus housing arrangements. Students will get a pro rata refund for housing and dining fees at the end of the semester.

“This is an unprecedented time of uncertainty not only for our colleges and universities, but also for our entire world,” Assanis said. “We are committed to ensuring all of our students, especially our graduating seniors, can meet their academic requirements.”

The school previously announced plans to host all instruction online starting March 23.

-Mark Eichmann

Canceled blood drives cause concern for Blood Bank of Delmarva supplies

Blood donation drives at schools have traditionally been a reliable source for the Blood Bank of Delmarva. About 40% of the blood the bank receives comes from drives hosted by schools, organizations and businesses. But almost all donation drives at those locations have now been canceled due to coronavirus fears.

That has the blood bank’s leaders concerned about a dangerous decline in the blood they supply to hospitals.

“The blood drives are kind of a lost cause right now,” said the blood bank’s Tony Prado. “This coronavirus is unprecedented, we’re in a challenging position because we still gotta fill these hospital orders, and we got 19 of them in Delmarva, and it’s a challenge.”

Earlier this week, the blood bank hosted a drive at the University of Delaware, which typically draws between 100 and 200 donors. “We had 18 donors show up,” Prado said. Even though the drive was held before state officials announced four people at the university had confirmed cases of COVID-19, the turnout was just a fraction of what it typically has been.

”We don’t want to get to a situation where we have to declare a blood emergency,” Prado said. “We are starting to see our inventory levels drop below the optimal seven-day supply level.”

The supply of O-negative blood is down to just two days, while there is a four days’ supply of O-positive.

Instead of depending on drives that have been canceled, Prado urged anyone who is healthy to come donate at one of the blood bank’s two Delaware locations in Christiana and Dover. Walk-in donations are also being collected in Salisbury, Maryland, and Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

“Please come out. We are asking you to be brave. But you’re going to be helping some people that are counting on us,” he said. “People who have some extra time on their hands, maybe they can come and see us. I know we’re asking a lot, but this is important.”

Anyone who is experiencing cold or flu-like symptoms is not eligible to donate. Blood bank staff performs a brief check up on all potential donors to rule out any illness. That also applies to anyone who has traveled to areas with an outbreak of COVID-19 like China, Iran and much of Europe.

-Mark Eichmann

Drive-through coronavirus testing in Del.

On Friday, Delaware’s largest state health system ChristianaCare is providing drive-through coronavirus testing in Wilmington. Currently, the state of Delaware has four confirmed cases, all linked to the University of Delaware community.

Today’s testing is for people who have symptoms consistent with COVID-19, including fever, cough and shortness of breath.

-Cris Barrish

Philly public schools to close for 2 weeks after Montco shutdown spill-over effect

Meanwhile, the Montgomery County order from Wolf created a domino effect in the School District of Philadelphia — where all Philadelphia public schools will be closed until March 27, Superintendent William Hite announced Friday.

As a result of the closure, roughly 130,000 students will be out of school over the next two weeks. City leaders have repeatedly said that will create major challenges for families, and their decision to close Pennsylvania’s largest school district came reluctantly.

“We wanted to do everything we could do to keep schools open,” Hite said. “But our inability to staff schools because of the decisions of some of the surrounding counties have made that impossible.

According to Philly school officials, 2,100 of the district’s 18,000 employees live in Montgomery County.

City leaders have noted the importance of free school meals in a city where about a quarter of residents live in poverty. Hite said the school district’s website will be updated regularly with information about “meal pickup and recreational opportunities.”

-Avi Wolfman-Arent

NJ Transit: No need to panic after train engineer self-quarantines

A spokesperson for NJ Transit is trying to reassure the public after the locomotive engineers’ union said one of its members is in self-quarantine due to possible exposure to coronavirus.

Jim Brown, chairman of the NJ Transit Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, said the man isolated himself after his wife came into contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19.

But NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder emphasized that self-quarantine does not necessarily mean the engineer has the virus.

What’s more, she said, engineers work in the front of the train and don’t typically interact with customers or the workers who check tickets.

“I don’t want to raise false public alarm,” she said.

The union and NJ Transit disagree about whether the agency is doing enough to protect its workers. Brown said the agency still hasn’t implemented a protocol to deal with possible coronavirus exposures, while Snyder said that’s false and the agency’s medical services personnel provided timely guidance to the concerned engineer.

For now, NJ Transit is operating on a normal schedule. Snyder said the agency is disinfecting all its trains and buses at least every 24 hours.

But ridership is down 20% in the last week, she said, which translates to about 164,000 fewer train and bus riders a day based on 2018 figures.

Also Friday, South Jersey’s three main utilities, PSE&G, JCP&L and Atlantic City Electric, announced they would suspend shutting off households’ electric or gas service due to nonpayment — JCP&L indefinitely and the other two through at least April.

-Nicholas Pugliese

N.J. Assembly to pass emergency legislation, although timing with Senate unclear

The leaders of New Jersey’s Assembly said they will work across the aisle Monday to pass a package of legislation in response to the coronavirus pandemic, although the state Senate will not meet to consider the measures for at least another week.

The bills will allow remote classroom instruction to count toward school districts’ 180-day teaching requirement; ensure that students eligible for free or reduced-price meals continue to receive them if schools close; and prohibit employers from firing workers who have to be quarantined, among others.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, and Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, said in a joint statement that they had canceled all proceedings Monday except one committee hearing and a full voting session needed to pass the bills.

They said members of the public could attend but urged them to follow CDC guidelines or, in the case of people over 60 and those with underlying medical conditions, to view the proceedings online.

The Senate, meanwhile, moved a slew of hearings and a voting session to March 23, the earliest lawmakers in that chamber could vote on the legislation.

The Senate is banning members of the public from attending. Instead, people can watch online and submit testimony via email.

-Nicholas Pugliese

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