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Wolf won't extend Pennsylvania's eviction moratorium, office says

MARC LEVY
Associated Press
Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during his press conference at PA CareerLink in York Tuesday, July 28, 2020. Wolf was highlighting the importance of job-finding resources in light of the unemployment cause by the COVID-19 outbreak in the state. Bill Kalina photo

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration reiterated Monday that he will not extend his executive order halting evictions and foreclosures in Pennsylvania because of legal limits that prevent him from taking further action.

In a statement, Wolf's office said it had explored the possibility that it could build off of the Federal Housing Administration's Thursday extension of its national foreclosure and eviction moratorium through December.

“But after a thorough legal review, we have determined that the governor cannot extend the executive order to reach additional Pennsylvanians who are not benefiting from the federal extensions and a legislative fix is necessary in order to protect homeowners and renters from eviction,” Wolf's office said.

The Federal Housing Administration’s moratorium protects homeowners with FHA-insured single family mortgages.

Wolf's office suggested that it is on thin legal ice while fighting a challenge to the existing executive order on evictions, although its explanation has raised questions about what exactly prevents him from extending the moratorium, which for almost six months has shielded renters from losing their homes for failing to pay rent during the pandemic.

Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, have introduced a slate of legislation to extend the moratorium and provide other tools for tenants to stave off eviction and pay back what they owe in rent.

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Like many Democratic and Republican governors and local officials around the U.S., Wolf imposed a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions to prevent people from losing their homes in the midst of the virus outbreak and widespread joblessness.

Housing advocates predict a rush to Pennsylvania's courthouses and a wave of evictions once the moratorium expires Tuesday.

Wolf has urged the state's Republican-controlled Legislature to pass legislation to extend the statewide moratorium.

Republicans have said they will discuss the matter, but gave no promises.

Earlier Monday, Wolf had briefly made it sound like he might reverse himself and extend it. Asked at a news conference Monday morning in Harrisburg if he would, he replied, “you have to wait and see.”

In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania:

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CASES IN AUGUST

Pennsylvania finished August with a total of 134,025 positive cases of coronavirus since the pandemic hit the state, and a total of 7,673 deaths reported because of the virus, according to the state Department of Health.

After a July spike, the percentage of virus tests coming back positive over seven days has dropped from 6% in late July to just under 4.8% at the end of August, according to the COVID Tracking Project. It hit a low of 3.3% in June.

The state saw a seven-day average of 650 new cases per day at the end of August, down from 925 per day over the last seven days of July.

Meanwhile, the number of deaths has remained relatively stable, ranging from a seven-day average of just below 12 up to 22 during August, according to the COVID Tracking Project. The seven-day average ended August at just under 12.

Pennsylvania’s death count is the eighth highest in the country overall and the 14th highest per capita at about 60 deaths per 100,000 people, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins.

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IMMIGRATION DETAINEES

A three-judge panel from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a district judge's order to temporarily release 22 immigrant detainees held in Pennsylvania who were considered to be a particular health risk if they were to contract the coronavirus.

The appeals court's decision last week criticized Judge John E. Jones, including for not considering a number of aspects about the detainees' backgrounds or alternatives to immediate release, and for putting the burden on the Justice Department to show why the detainees should not be released.

Witold J. Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said he and other lawyers for the immigrants are considering whether to appeal the decision or ask to argue it in front of a bigger panel of judges. The court's decision does not take effect for 45 days.

In the meantime, the one-time detainees are in the community and doing well, although one was deported, Walczak said. He also said it would be dangerous for his clients to return to live in the detainee dorms, since one of the detention centers — York County Prison — is reporting 19 positive cases.

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PAID SICK LEAVE LEGISLATION

Wolf is urging lawmakers to pass legislation that requires businesses to provide paid sick and family leave for workers, saying Monday that it will help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Wolf said many workers lack any paid time off, and those working paycheck-to-paycheck are likelier to go to work, even if they feel sick, and infect co-workers.

“Workers should not have to choose between their job and their health, especially during this pandemic,” Wolf told a news conference in Harrisburg.

Thirteen states and Washington D.C. have enacted laws to require paid sick leave, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. A few states have temporarily broadened access to paid sick leave in response to the coronavirus, but none have adopted permanent and broad paid sick leave measures, the NCSL said.

Paid sick leave legislation introduced by Democrats has sat untouched since last year in the Republican-controlled Legislature, amid opposition by business advocacy groups.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh each have a paid sick leave ordinance.

Democrats have redoubled efforts to urge the bills' passage since the onset of the pandemic, saying requiring paid sick leave would lower health care costs, make workers and workplaces more efficient and improve public health.

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RESTRICTIONS ON RESTAURANTS

Wolf gave no hint Monday that he will relax restrictions on indoor capacity at restaurants and bars, which he limited to 25% in July amid a resurgence of the virus linked, by some contact tracing data, to bars and restaurants.

Asked Monday about those restrictions as colder weather increasingly prevents outdoor seating, Wolf said he is focused on getting children back to school, “and anything we do to take our eyes off that ball is going to be a problem.”

Wolf also ordered nightclubs to shut down and bars to close, unless they offer dine-in meals.

Chuck Moran of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association said early results from a survey he is conducting of its independently owned members shows that 70% say they will have to close either this year or next year if nothing changes.