Coronavirus not prompting legislature to postpone session plans

  • Ed Mahon/PA Post

Note: This story was edited at 4:22 p.m. with updated numbers from the Pennsylvania Department of Health; at 4:35 p.m. with comments from a state senator who is closing his office;at 4:48 p.m. with additional comments from Health Secretary Rachel Levine and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections; and at 8:49 p.m. with Wolf administration guidance to employees.

The number of confirmed and presumed coronavirus infections in the state is not discouraging legislators from returning to the Capitol in Harrisburg next week. 

But a spokesman for the House Republican Caucus said discussions are ongoing about the legislative session schedule.

“There are meetings happening today with the administration, and other meetings planned for this afternoon and tomorrow morning where I think we will make some final decisions about next week,” said spokesman Mike Straub. “Right now, there are no changes to the session schedule, or any changes directed to work in the district or district staff.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the state Department of Health said there were 14 presumptive positive cases and 2 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state. All of the reported cases so far are in southeastern or northeastern Pennsylvania, with the following counties affected: Bucks (2): Delaware (1); Monroe (2); Montgomery (9); Philadelphia (1); Wayne (1).

Several universities have announced plans to switch to remote classes for the rest of the spring semester or extend spring break by a week to minimize the risk of students spreading the virus.

The City of Philadelphia is discouraging people from attending gatherings where 5,000 or more people are expected to attend, and the city canceled its St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The city of Pittsburgh also canceled its parade and announced it is suspending business travel for employees, although the policy allows exceptions. Pittsburgh officials also said the city won’t hold public meetings where more than 50 people are expected to attend.

In Harrisburg, the legislative session is scheduled to resume Monday for both the 50-seat Senate and 203-seat House (which has a few vacancies at the moment). Both chambers are scheduled to be in session the following Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as Monday, March 23, Tuesday, March 24, and Wednesday, March 25.

Those session days typically bring more visitors to the state Capitol for rallies and other lobbying efforts. Monday’s Capitol calendar includes advocacy events for Pre-K education, patient care and youth homelessness.

Spokespeople for the House and Senate Democratic caucuses said they anticipate being in session next week, but are monitoring developments. A spokesperson for the Senate Republican Caucus said the Senate continues to operate normally.

Nationally, several Republican lawmakers in Congress decided to quarantine themselves after coming in contact with someone who was later diagnosed with COVID-19, NBC News reported. In Connecticut, the state responded to the threat of the coronavirus by deciding to close its Capitol complex for a deep cleaning.

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine said she wasn’t recommending cancellations of events because the virus, so far, isn’t spreading widely from person-to-person in the state. On Wednesday, Levine said she supported decisions to cancel events and switch to remote functions. But the state isn’t mandating that yet.

“These mitigation measures can help slow the progression of COVID-19. And they are steps that we are seriously considering,” Levine said.

But at least one lawmaker is cutting back services based on the coronavirus. State Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat representing parts of Montgomery and Delaware counties, said he plans to close his Senate office as of the end of the day today.

“I am simply unable to assure that my staff, and the constituents, stakeholders and service personnel that come to my office won’t be exposed to the virus,” Leach said in a statement.

He said he and his staff will still be answering and returning calls, and they might set up one-on-one or small meetings with constituents. He said his office is canceling outreach and other events.

Montgomery County leads the state for coronavirus cases. On Wednesday afternoon, the state Department of Corrections said it plans to require an enhanced screening process for visitors and employees at the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix, located in the county. The department might consider taking the same steps at other facilities as other areas of the state see more cases.

On Wednesday, the Wolf administration issued travel restrictions for state employees under his jurisdiction. They are barred from international travel on state business. Out-of-state travel for state business is prohibited unless an agency head determines it is “mission critical,” the administration said in a memo. The governor’s office also told employees to postpone or virtually host planned large meetings, conferences, trainings, or community events. The governor’s office will have to approve any large meeting that occurs in person.

The Wolf administration also says employees who are in COVID-19 quarantine, but otherwise healthy and able to work, may be authorized to work remotely. Quarantined employees who are unable to work can seek approval to stay home from work with no loss in pay for up to 10 workdays. In a news release, the administration said the “release from work with pay would be a very rare outcome, and we will explore all options short of this step so we can provide vital services to the commonwealth citizens.”

 WITF Transforming Health reporter Brett Sholtis contributed to this report.

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