HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf extended a shutdown order Monday to the entire state of Pennsylvania in an effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus, although he also maintained that he will not send the National Guard or state police to force businesses to close or stop events.
Wolf acted in similar fashion as neighboring states, including Ohio, New York and New Jersey, as he closed schools statewide and a range of government offices in the days leading up to Monday.
The shutdown of nonessential government offices and nonessential business activity will begin Tuesday and last for at least two weeks, he said.
“This isn’t a decision that I take lightly at all,” Wolf said during a news conference at the headquarters of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. “It’s one that I’m making because medical experts believe it’s the only way we can prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed by patients.”
State-owned liquor stores were directed to shut down after being open Tuesday, St. Patrick’s Day, and restaurants were to end dine-in service.
Wolf had in recent days issued similar orders for four heavily populated southeastern Pennsylvania counties — Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery — where the state has confirmed most of its cases of COVID-19, while Philadelphia took a similar step Monday.
The number of positive cases in Pennsylvania grew Monday, surpassing 75.
Wolf’s order is a blend of voluntary and mandatory actions. For instance, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board said it was suspending gambling operations for all casinos. Wolf on Sunday night ordered bars and restaurants in five counties to close dine-in service and said businesses that do not adhere to the order could face penalties.
Still, he also said that he would not use force to close businesses, but he urged people to understand that all Pennsylvanians are in the fight together and said they owe it to one another not to spread the disease.
“People will be making their decisions what they do with their lives all across the commonwealth for the next days and weeks and months,” Wolf said in response to a reporter’s question about racetracks refusing to close unless forced. “What we ought to do is think not what should we do in terms what the law is, but what should we do in terms of what we owe to our fellow citizens.”
Wolf’s orders in recent days have often caused confusion and required clarification or adjustments.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court gave local judges the ability to shut down county courthouses as needed and the Pennsylvania Turnpike interchanges will no longer take cash or credit cards.
A look at the other developments in Pennsylvania:
The virus that has stricken tens of thousands around the globe causes only mild symptoms for the majority of the people who become infected but can be deadly for some, especially older adults and people with certain health conditions such as respiratory illness.
Health care providers
The number of medical professionals getting infected with the fast-spreading COVID-19 in Pennsylvania is growing.
St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia closed its trauma department and closed its intensive care unit to new admissions after a physician was diagnosed with the illness.
The physician, who worked in the intensive care unit last Monday through Wednesday, did not acquire the infection in the hospital, the hospital’s acting CEO, Ron Dreskin, said in letter posted on the hospital’s website.
The case at St. Christopher’s follows reports in recent days that a Lehigh Valley Health Network staffer and a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia cardiologist had met with patients before testing positive.
The Legislature elections
The state House convened briefly Monday and unanimously passed a special temporary rule that permits them to vote without being in the chamber. About two dozen members were absent. The chamber adjourned indefinitely, but members were told to be ready to come back on 12 hours’ notice.
A Senate voting session was possible Wednesday, with senators on a 12-hour call to return.
Meanwhile, three special elections to fill vacancies in the House were expected to go forward as scheduled Tuesday.
House Republican leaders said this weekend they based their decision not to postpone the elections in part on the fact that absentee balloting was already underway.
All three seats are open because the previous occupants, all Republicans, were elected to other positions last fall. The seats are based in Mercer County, Bucks County and Westmoreland County.
Late Monday, a judge rejected a request by officials in Bucks County to postpone the special election over public health concerns.
The Wolf administration’s definition of nonessential businesses includes community and recreation centers; gyms, including yoga, barre and spin facilities; hair salons, barbers, nail salons and spas; casinos; concert venues; theaters; bars; sporting event venues and golf courses; retail facilities, including shopping malls, except for pharmacies or other health care facilities within retail operations.
Licensed child care centers, except those in Philadelphia, must shut down. Adult day care centers and senior community centers also must close.
Restaurants can remain open for carry-out, drive-thru and delivery orders, and shut down dine-in service.
The administration said essential services and sectors include, but are not limited, to food processing; agriculture; industrial manufacturing; feed mills; construction; trash collection; grocery stores; convenience stores; retailers of household goods; home repair, hardware and auto repair stores; pharmacy and other medical facilities; biomedical and health care facilities; post offices and shipping outlets; insurers; banks; gas stations; laundromats; veterinary clinics and pet stores; warehousing, storage, and distribution facilities; public transportation; and hotel and commercial lodging.
In Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney on Monday ordered a two-week halt to all nonessential business activity and city government operations in the city of 1.6 million people.
Kenney asked that residents and businesses observe the restrictions, and said he understood that it could have devastating effects on them. “We are aware that this will disrupt life in Philadelphia and we do not make these changes lightly,” Kenney said in an address from City Hall.
Philadelphia’s guidance to businesses was slightly different than Wolf’s, and the Wolf administration said Philadelphians should follow the city’s guidance.
On Friday, Wolf ordered the closure of all schools statewide and a no-visitor policy at all state prisons and licensed nursing homes statewide.
He also ordered staff in the Capitol complex in Harrisburg to work from home, if they are able. In Pittsburgh, city officials on Sunday announced a ban on public gatherings of 50 people or more.
State parks and forests will close all facilities for two weeks, starting Tuesday, although visitors will still get access to trails, lakes and forests. Parking lots will remain open. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said Monday that it will shut down offices, visitor centers, bathrooms, campgrounds and cabins and public events.
Driver’s licenses, roadwork
The state Transportation Department closed all centers that issue driver’s licenses and photo licenses for at least two weeks. PennDOT said the closures took effect late Monday.
The agency also extended expiration dates for driver’s licenses, ID cards, vehicle registrations and safety and emissions checks. If they expire before March 31, the new deadline to renew will be April 30.
All district and county maintenance offices were shuttered. Many construction projects were suspended, but PennDOT said there were still crews to perform emergency maintenance and other critical duties. Rest areas and welcome centers were to close Tuesday.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission said that cash and credit cards will not be accepted at any interchange statewide beginning Monday at 8 p.m. The measure is designed to keep travelers safe, so that they don’t need to stop at tollbooths or interact with tolling personnel during the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission said.
All tolls will be assessed electronically via E-ZPass or the turnpike’s Toll By Plate program. Travelers are being asked to travel at posted speed limits through tolling points and pay attention when going through interchanges.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is giving the chief judges in each county authority to close down court facilities and suspend time limits that normally apply to court proceedings.
Several counties immediately did so, and Commonwealth Court canceled oral argument scheduled for next week, including for a closely watched lawsuit over the “Marsy’s Law” victim rights constitutional amendment.
The high court acted Monday and provided the emergency powers through April 14. The order, it said, does not affect criminal defendants’ constitutional right to speedy trials.