Wolf reopens gun shops; Delco, Philly report first coronavirus deaths

KYW Staff
March 25, 2020 - 11:56 am

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UPDATED: 9:10 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Even as he ordered residents of another county to stay at home, Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday quietly allowed gun shops to reopen on a limited basis during the coronavirus pandemic after several justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court urged him to do so.

On Wednesday, Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine revised the state's stay-at-home order to include Lehigh and Northampton counties. The order now includes these 10 counties: Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Erie, Lehigh, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, and Philadelphia.

The amended orders takes effect at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, and will continue until April 6.

Related: The latest coronavirus news from Pennsylvania and New Jersey

Cases and deaths

Philadelphia announced the first coronavirus-related death in the city on Wednesday.

"Every death is a tragedy," said Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley. "We don't want to discuss this simply as statistics."

He would not give any other details as to give confidentiality to the family, but Farley did say the person who died was a man in his 50s with an underlying health condition.

Adding two coronavirus-related deaths reported by Delaware County officials on Tuesday, the total in five-county Philadelphia area is now four. 

Delaware County officials say an 85-year-old man from Ridley Park who was hospitalized after contracting coronavirus has died. 

They also say an 86-year-old woman from Marple Township, Delaware County died in a Montgomery County hospital. They say was a resident at Rosewood Garden Rehab and Nursing Center in Broomall.

Delaware County council chair Brian Zidek says they send their condolences to the families, and he says the deaths are a reminder of why stay-at-orders and other mitigation efforts are in effect and should be taken seriously:

“If you’re a 24-year-old and you contract COVID-19 you may recover on your own,but you may come into contact with someone who has a compromised immune system or compromised respiratory system and they may not recover.”

And he says the social distancing efforts are also important to “flatten the curve” to help protect the healthcare system from getting overwhelmed.

Montgomery County announced its first coronavirus related death — a 72-year-old man from Abington — over the weekend. Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh announced another death related to the virus, an 84-year-old man, also from Abington, who had underlying health issues.

“On behalf of all of us here at the county, I extend our heartfelt condolences to this gentleman’s friends, family and loved ones,” she said.

Montgomery County announced 60 new positive cases on Wednesday, bringing the total in the county to 219. Arkoosh said test results are lagging several days, and a jump in positive cases is expected as they increased their testing capability with the opening of their drive-thru testing facility on Temple University’s Ambler campus.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health on Wednesday confirmed 276 additional positive cases of COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to 1,127 in 44 counties. The statewide death total is at least 11. 

Case counts in Pennsylvania have been doubling every two or three days. There are 11,193 patients who have tested negative.

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death. The vast majority of people recover.

Small businesses

Relief is also coming to some businesses that have been struggling lately because of coronavirus restrictions.

Wolf made the announcement Wednesday: “The Covid-19 Workers Capital Access Program, or the CWCA, will provide loans of up to $100,000 to for-profit businesses with 100 or fewer full-time employees,” he said.

The Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority set aside $60 million for these loans, which are expected to become available this week.

The governor encourages any small business that is eligible to take advantage.

Gun shops reopen

Firearms dealers may now sell their wares by individual appointment during limited hours as long as they comply with social distancing guidelines and take other measures to protect employees and customers from the coronavirus, the governor's office said.

Wolf's office did not announce the policy change. It was included on an updated list of businesses that are subject to his order to close their physical locations because they have been deemed "non-life-sustaining."

Gun rights advocates hailed the decision.

"I am extremely pleased that Governor Wolf has acknowledged that he may not eviscerated citizens' inviolate rights, regardless of any states of emergency that may exist," said Joshua Prince, who had filed suit on behalf of a gun shop and a would-be gun purchaser.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had narrowly dismissed Prince's suit, which challenged Wolf's authority to shutter businesses deemed "non-life-sustaining."

But in a dissenting statement joined by two other justices, Justice David Wecht said Wolf's order amounted to "an absolute and indefinite prohibition upon the acquisition of firearms by the citizens of this commonwealth — a result in clear tension with the Second Amendment" and the state constitution.

Wecht's dissent had called on Wolf to make some allowance for the in-person sale of firearms.

"We developed the policy following review of the Supreme Court's decision," Wolf's spokeswoman, Lindsay Kensinger, said Tuesday night.

Primary date delay

Pennsylvania lawmakers voted to delay its primary election by five weeks to June 2, potentially past the spike of the state's spreading coronavirus cases.

Both chambers of the state Legislature approved it Wednesday and Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said he will sign it.

The measure had support from top Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Under the bill, Pennsylvania will hold its primary election June 2, instead of April 28.

In addition to delaying the primary date, the legislation gives county election offices a head start on processing and tabulating mail-in ballots, newly allowed under a five-month-old election law.

Department of State prepares for voting by mail

The Pennsylvania Department of State is working to implement the Commonwealth’s new mail-in balloting options, which allows voters to cast their ballots via mail for any reason or no reason at all. Officials expect a many more voters will choose the option because of coronavirus concerns.

"Whether its because you’re going to be out of town, whether you don’t feel like going to the polling place or whether you need to be at home — because of the current circumstances," Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Bookvar said.

Bookvar says the application for the mail-in ballot is available online.

"It’s super quick, very easy. And not only that, but I highly suggest that you enter your email address, because you’ll get a notification when your application is received, when its approved, when they send out your ballot and, once you send in your ballot, when it is received," she said.

She says voters will need to provide information from their state-issued ID and signature to prevent fraud. Because the state is preparing for a huge uptick in mail-in ballot applications, the legislature is working to allow counties to start counting ballots earlier, to ensure safe and accurate counting.

For more on how the new mail in ballots will work, visit kywnewsradio.com/flashpoint.

Funding request

Hospitals, nursing homes and child care centers are asking Pennsylvania state government for more money to avoid closures amid a surge of coronavirus-related demands on staffing and equipment.

There is a "legitimate, credible threat" that some hospitals, without financial support from either the federal government or the state government, will close, said Andy Carter, president and CEO of the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania.

The hospital group proposed a state fund that would help hospitals build surge capacity, retrofit critical-care units for highly infectious COVID-19 patients, hire more clinicians, pay for housing, establish on-site childcare facilities for healthcare workers and purchase protective gear, Carter told reporters on a conference call.

He did not provide a dollar figure, but said "we know it's going to be an extraordinary amount to match the size of the potential surge of care that we will be providing."

With financial challenges looming over them, hospitals and nursing homes identified $1.5 billion in new, coronavirus-related Medicaid funding for Pennsylvania as a possible funding source.

Nursing home groups and labor unions representing elder-care workers requested help getting protective equipment, a 3% increase in reimbursement rates and a minimum of $290 million in emergency aid to nursing homes.

Child care advocates, meanwhile, said more than $100 million is needed to replace lost tuition and co-pays. They also urged passage of a law protecting the centers from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

Supplies tight

With hospitals warning they could run out of masks and other protective gear in about three weeks as COVID-19 spikes, Wolf's administration said it is rushing to procure more medical supplies from the federal government's stockpile, from other states and countries, and from manufacturers repurposing their factories.

"There's a full-on effort across the administration to make sure we have the supplies for our healthcare personnel to deal with the surge of patients from COVID-19,'' Health Secretary Rachel Levine said Tuesday.

Officials have been vague about the state's readiness, however.

Levine has steadfastly refused to say how much protective gear Pennsylvania has in its possession, and how much it still needs to help healthcare workers safely treat the anticipated surge of coronavirus patients. Nor have officials answered questions about the state's supply of respirators, or how many more hospital beds it might need to meet demand.

Carter, of the hospital association, said hospitals are scrambling to obtain enough protective gear to meet demand. Some facilities could run out of masks and other equipment in a matter of days or even hours as they become flooded with COVID-19 patients, he said. Overall, hospitals across the state have about a three-week supply, he said.

Legal actions

Several more businesses have filed a legal challenge to Gov. Wolf's order closing the physical locations of businesses determined to be nonessential.

A petition was filed with the state Supreme Court on Tuesday on behalf of a candidate for state representative, a real estate agent, a laundromat, a timber company and a golf course, all seeking to have Wolf's shutdown order thrown out.

The petition, which replaced an earlier lawsuit filed with a lower court, objected to Wolf's determination that some businesses are "non-life-sustaining," saying he "quite simply made up these categories and their terminology out of whole cloth."

The suit alleges his shutdown order and subsequent revisions "caused mass confusion and disturbance throughout Pennsylvania."

Wolf has already beat back two other legal challenges to his authority to order businesses to close.

Separately, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and other lawyers filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday seeking the release of 13 people from civil detention as they await resolution of their immigration cases. The lawsuit says the detainees are older or suffer from medical conditions that put them at greater risk of COVID-19. The detainees are currently being held in the Clinton, Pike and York county jails.

School timeline

Pennsylvania schools are officially closed until at least April 6. But State Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said no matter how long the shutdown lasts, the school year can't stretch into July.

“By statute, we can't extend school past June 30. That's actually when schools fiscally close and then we go into the next year's fiscal cycle,” he said.

In a Wednesday morning conference call with reporters, Rivera repeated that the school shutdown could extend beyond April 6, if the governor and state health secretary declare it's necessary.

The governor also has an emergency bill on his desk that would eliminate the requirement that schools provide 180 days of instruction this year.

The state House and Senate passed the bill on Wednesday.

On the House floor, Roxborough Democratic state Rep. Pam DeLissio said she was concerned that students would need remedial time next school year.

“If that includes bringing children back to school a few weeks earlier and keeping them in a few weeks later to help them make up, I look forward to being joined by my colleagues to make that happen,” she said.

The governor has said he would wait until the bill gets to him to decide whether he would sign it.

One county offers aid to another

Chester County is offering to help Berks County in its battle against COVID-19. 

A week ago, Berks County reported its first coronavirus case. A week later, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported 20 more cases.

Commissioner chairman Christian Leinbach, who’s on the county COVID-19 task force, said Chester reached out to Berks.

“We are working with them and discussing partnering with them on some of the response here to COVID-19,” he said. “They have been very helpful.”

The offer of aid came around the same time that Chester County finalized an agreement with Delaware County officials to share its health department services.

“We’re establishing a relationship that didn’t exist before, and I’m excited about that,” Leinbach said. “I’m thrilled of their willingness to reach out.”

Berks County is among 57 other Pennsylvania counties without a health department.

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KYW Newsradio's Cherri Gregg, Andrew Kramer, Mike DeNardo, Mark Abrams and Jim Melwert, and the Associated Press, contributed to this report.