Gov. Wolf issues stay-at-home order for southeastern counties

KYW Staff
March 23, 2020 - 12:40 pm

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UPDATED: 5:33 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Gov. Tom Wolf issued a stay-at-home order for several counties in southeastern Pennsylvania.

The order begins at 8 p.m. Monday for Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, Allegheny and Monroe counties. Philadelphia is already under a stay-at-home order by Mayor Jim Kenney.

Wolf’s stay-at-home order is in effect for until further notice. School closures have also been extended for two weeks across the state, through at least April 6.

He said he issued the order to areas of the state that are most affected. He said the commonwealth hasn't seen something that disrupted daily life to this magnitude since the Civil War.

Roads, grocery stores and pharmacies will remain open. Outdoor walks or jogs are still allowed, but still keep in mind that 6-foot buffer between other people.

Before any trip out of the house, Wolf said people in those counties should ask themselves if their trip is essential — an effort to buy time to avoid overwhelming health care systems.

“Stay at home as unless someone’s life depends on going out, because ultimately someone’s life does depend on you staying home,” he emphasized.

He said they do have the ability to follow through with citations to enforce the order, but he hopes that everyone can cooperate.

Montco supports governor’s order

As of Monday, Montgomery County reported a total of 136 positive cases. The first death in the county was reported over the weekend: a 72-year-old man from Abington. 

Montco Commissioner Val Arkoosh hopes he serves as a reminder to everyone to take necessary steps to protect people who are most vulnerable to the virus.

“Protects our first responders, our hospitals and health care workers, and other critical workforce from being overwhelmed by COVID-19,” she added.

Montgomery County has the most cases of any county, with Philadelphia following close behind.

Arkoosh said not only do they support the governor’s order, but she encouraged him to enact it.

“I believe that staying home except for essential work or essential trips is the most important thing we can do as a county,” she said.

Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele added on Monday that municipal police are ready to enforce the “essential businesses only” order, though he hopes they don’t have to, as, he noted, police have more important things to do.

The county is also expanding the eligibility for testing at their drive-thru site on Temple’s Ambler campus. In addition to anyone with symptoms, now anyone who has contact with someone who has tested positive can get tested, along with anyone who’s doctor is recommending they get tested.

Business closure enforcement begins

Wolf's order to close down the physical locations of businesses deemed not essential to sustain life is being enforced as of Monday morning.

The Wolf administration has been sorting through nearly 10,000 waiver requests, saying their only consideration is health and safety.

Pennsylvania State Police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski said Monday that troopers are aiming at voluntary compliance, "not coming in with a hammer at 8:01" a.m., when the enforcement period began.

"Our goal is not to write a giant pile of citations," he said.

Tarkowski said people who want to report a business that remains open should use non-emergency numbers to call state police or local police. "Please don't call 911," Tarkowski said.

Berks County District Attorney John Adams said he also has instructed police departments in his county to seek voluntary compliance from business owners who appear to be in violation of Wolf's order.

"Going around and checking businesses to determine whether or not they are operating is not going to be our No. 1 priority at this time, because community safety needs to come first," he said.

Adams understands that many businesses have sought waivers to the governor's order, and local police don't have the time check whether such waivers have been granted.

He also disagrees with the assessment from state police management in Harrisburg that citations issued for violating Wolf's order would withstand legal scrutiny.

What's open? What's closed?

Businesses that remain open to the public include grocery stores, pharmacies, hotels and motels, beer distributors, laundromats and gas stations.

Restaurants are only open for take-out orders. The open list also includes farms, mines, food production and some manufacturing.

Car dealers, clothing stores and other retailers, salons and entertainment venues are among those on the shuttered list.

On Monday, Pennsylvania officials extended the closure of facilities in state parks and forests until April 30. People with reservations for campgrounds, cabins and other overnight accommodations will get refunds.

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said trails, lakes, forests, roads and parking areas remain open to the public, but urged people to practice social distancing and avoid crowded parking lots and trailheads.

The closure includes restrooms.

Gun shops fight to stay open

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by a gun shop that challenged Wolf's authority to shutter businesses determined to be "non-life-sustaining," paving the way for enforcement to begin Monday.

Without comment, a majority of the state's high court late Sunday denied the petition by a gun shop, a gun purchaser and a law firm to have Wolf's shutdown order thrown out. The lawsuit had claimed Wolf's edict violated the Second Amendment right to bear arms and other constitutional rights.

The court also said a legal challenge to Wolf's order to close law offices had become moot because of subsequent action that lets lawyers work from their physical locations to perform duties deemed essential by county or federal judges.

The Democratic governor has ordered all nonessential businesses to close their physical locations indefinitely, saying the measure is needed to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

In a dissenting statement joined by two other justices, Justice David Wecht said Wolf's order amounts 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. He called on Wolf to make some allowance for the in-person sale of firearms.

State case count

Pennsylvania officials reported Monday 165 additional positive cases of COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to 644. At least six Pennsylvanians have died from coronavirus.

Tower Health-Reading Hospital has confirmed that an anesthesiologist working there has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

In a letter and email to hospital staff over the weekend, officials confirmed the individual last worked on March 18, and some days prior to that. The communication said he took part "in a number of surgical procedures and obstetrical deliveries."

Clint Matthews, Tower Health president and CEO, said the anesthesiologist was fully masked at the time, which may have mitigated spread of the disease.

However, employees who worked with him were evaluated, and some were asked to go into 14-day home confinement.

He said hospital procedures require cleaning of operating and delivery rooms after each procedure.

Matthews said the respiratory illness was not acquired at work.

He said the hospital is notifying all patients and staff who may have been exposed to him.

For most people, the virus 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. The vast majority of people recover.

Philadelphia stay-at-home order goes into effect

As of Monday 8 a.m., a stay-at-home order is in effect in Philadelphia. The city needed to take this next step, according to Mayor Jim Kenney.

He said he hopes residents who weren't on board before, can now understand how critical social distancing is right now.

"Most people are taking it seriously, but there are still too many people not taking it seriously," he said. "We wanted to ramp the level of concern so that it can get into their heads that this is a serious epidemic and they need to be home."

City officials say there can be no gatherings outside a single household, and people can leave the house only for essential travel. That means grocery store trips are still OK. Residents can still get food from a restaurant but the order must be called in or placed online. In-person orders are prohibited.

Food and other goods can be delivered, but food trucks and ice cream trucks are not allowed.

Travel for medical treatment is allowed, as is checking up on family members, friends and pets.

Outdoor exercise is OK, as long as people remember social distancing.

Officials say laundromats, vet hospitals, pet stores and banks can stay open, as well as shops that fix cellphones, bikes and motorcycles.

Emergency work at the house, such as an exterminator, is allowed, as well.

Kenney said the city will have to wait and see how enforcement will work.

"We'll address that as we see what the response is to this ... new wrinkle is. ... I can’t see us getting to the point of taking people into custody. That’s a whole another complicated issue," the mayor said.

Wolf mulls statewide stay-at-home order

Wolf said he is not yet ready to enact a statewide stay-at-home order. He said he supports Philadelphia’s decision, and a statewide stay-at-home order is under consideration.

"That's something that has to be under consideration, and it is for Pennsylvania," he said.

The governor stressed the need to prevent the health care system from becoming overwhelmed

"We need to buy time, and the things that Pennsylvania has already done (are) aimed at doing just that, and if we have to do more, we will."

The governor said he’ll continue to work with county and local governments to determine the best path forward.

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KYW Newsradio's Mark Abrams, Rachel Kurland, Jim Melwert and Tim Jimenez, and the Associated Press, contributed to this report.