As coronavirus cases grow, Pennsylvania eyes later primary
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania saw another big increase in confirmed coronavirus cases Sunday, as well as another death, as lawmakers speed legislation to delay the state's April 28 primary election and relax rules around how mail-in ballots can be processed in advance of polls closing.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia is issuing a stay-at-home order that begins Monday, after Gov. Tom Wolf has already asked residents to stay home, if they can, and ordered non-life-sustaining businesses to close. Enforcement begins Monday morning.
On Sunday evening, Wolf said the state needed to continue the measures, and possibly undertake more, in an effort to slow the growth of coronavirus cases and ensure that the state's hospitals have the staff, equipment and bed space to handle the coming surge in patients.
“What we’re trying to do here is buy time,” Wolf said, appearing from his home in a livestreamed video in which an aide read questions submitted by reporters. "We need to keep what happened in Italy from happening here in Pennsylvania. We cannot overload our health care system or we’re not going to be able to do anything to respond adequately to the challenge that we’re all facing.”
Amid lobbying to relax the order, Wolf's administration softened its broad ban on construction to allow emergency work.
A look at coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania on Sunday:
Pennsylvania health officials on Sunday reported more than 100 new cases in Pennsylvania, for a total of more than 470. Montgomery County said it had confirmed the first coronavirus-related death there, the third reported in Pennsylvania.
Health Secretary Rachel Levine said Saturday that people with mild symptoms do not necessarily need to get tested, and, after calling their doctor, they may be able to stay home, rest and take fluids and anti-fever medication.
Testing is being prioritized for symptomatic people who are health care providers, elderly, very ill or for those who have chronic medical conditions, Levine said.
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.
Legislation is being drafted to delay Pennsylvania's primary from April 28 to June 2, and could make it through the Republican-controlled Legislature and get to Wolf's desk by the end of the week.
A first vote was expected Monday in the House State Government Committee. House State Government Committee Chairman Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, said support for it is bipartisan, with overwhelming backing from counties and county election directors.
“We want to get ahead of the game, rather than the Ohio example, where we pull the trigger at the last minute and scramble around,” Everett said. “We want to do it in organized fashion.”
Rep. Kevin Boyle, the committee's ranking Democrat from Philadelphia, said he expects that Democratic support for the measure is near-universal and believes Wolf supports it, too.
Wolf, a Democrat, said Sunday that he is working with lawmakers on it, but did not say what sort of change he would support or that there was an agreement on it.
Top Republicans support the change, House and Senate GOP officials said Sunday.
With the virus spreading and Wolf asking residents to stay in their homes, election directors don't see how they can get ballots printed and poll workers hired and trained to conduct a primary on April 28, Everett said.
Pennsylvania's 5-month-old mail-in ballot law lets any voter cast a ballot by mail. But Everett said usage of mail-in ballots will far exceed earlier projections of 20% because of the coronavirus.
To help county election directors process the crush of mail-in ballots, Everett said he wants the legislation to allow them to process the ballots in advance, to verify that the ballot is valid, and then start tabulating them at 8 a.m. on Election Day.
Boyle said he supports mailing a ballot to each registered voter, and that more steps may be necessary to help people vote by mail if it becomes clear that allowing an in-person vote on June 2 is a threat to public safety.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is issuing a stay-at-home order to the nation's sixth most-populated city to keep its 1.6 million people from leaving home, except to get food, seek medical attention, exercise outdoors, go to a job classified as essential or other errands that involve personal and public safety.
Kenney said people didn't seem to take his request to stay home seriously, and he wanted "to ramp up the level of concern so people will get it in their heads that this is a serious epidemic and they need to stay home.”
People, he said, were still going to things like parties, picnics and barbecues.
The city's managing director, Brian Abernathy, said Philadelphia would not be under martial law, although officers might intervene to break up large groups of people and send them home.
Banned are public and private gatherings outside a single household, except for limited exceptions, such as businesses deemed essential by the city.
Also banned are walk-in takeout orders at restaurants, as are food trucks and ice cream trucks. Only food pre-ordered on the internet or by phone and drive-through ordering are permitted, Kenney's office said.
Wolf has already ordered schools shut through March, at least, and asked residents to stay home, even before he ordered non-life-sustaining businesses to close to avoid spreading the virus. Levine has even discouraged parents from letting their children have play dates.
Levine has said the Wolf administration is considering a stay-at-home order, describing such a step as “emphasizing even more” that residents stay home.
Amid lobbying by interest groups and others, Wolf's administration is sorting through nearly 10,000 waiver requests from his order that non-life-sustaining businesses close, Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin said.
Davin insisted lobbying wasn't heavy and that he would not listen to personal appeals to him to overturn a particular businesses' non-life-sustaining categorization.
The Wolf administration's only consideration is health and safety, as dozens of employees in Davin's department and lawyers in the governor's office review requests for a waiver, Davin said.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, released a letter asking Wolf to reverse his administration's decision to shut down construction on highways and the Pennsylvania Turnpike and construction equipment trade associations asked Wolf's administration to overturn its prohibition on construction projects.
Brian McGuire, president and CEO of the Illinois-based Associated Equipment Distributors, said Pennsylvania’s shutdown order for construction activity was more restrictive than other states.
One thing Davin said he has heard a lot of from lawmakers and business groups is the ability of businesses that might be shut down to otherwise step up and help produce critical equipment that is in short supply, like respirators.
With hospital beds a premium to prepare for a surge of coronavirus patients, Penn Medicine said Sunday that crews are speeding up work to finish construction on its new hospital on the west Philadelphia campus of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. It said 119 rooms will be available to patients with COVID-19 by mid-April. Construction had been slated to finish in the summer of 2021.
Penn Medicine also said it added about 100 nurses, physicians assistants and physicians to its 24/7 virtual visit service, OnDemand.
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