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Your afternoon update on the coronavirus in Pa.: Wolf grants series of exemptions to order closing ‘non-life-sustaining’ businesses, delays enforcement

'We’re going to do the best we can to prevent our hospital system from crashing,' Wolf said Friday afternoon

Three food trucks line up in a lot for people to buy take out dinners, Thursday, March 19, 2020, in the Ross Township suburb of Pittsburgh. They we giving people an option since restaurants with indoor dining areas are closed in efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.

 Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

Three food trucks line up in a lot for people to buy take out dinners, Thursday, March 19, 2020, in the Ross Township suburb of Pittsburgh. They we giving people an option since restaurants with indoor dining areas are closed in efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.

With our coronavirus coverage, our goal is to equip you with the information you need. Rather than chase every update, we’ll try to keep things in context and focus on helping you make decisions. See all of our stories here.

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Under fire from business groups and Republican lawmakers and facing lawsuits over a broad shutdown order designed to slow the spreading of the coronavirus, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration defended its actions as critical to preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed, but it also made a series of concessions.

And late Friday, the administration said that because so many businesses have requested waivers, it would delay enforcement of the shutdown until 8 a.m. Monday. Enforcement had been set to start after midnight Saturday.

Wolf defended the order — issued late Thursday to sharpen an earlier directive — by citing big, daily upticks in the number of coronavirus cases and declaring, “I cannot allow these surging numbers to overwhelm our people, our health care workers and our hospitals.”

Forcing tens of thousands of businesses to shutter their doors indefinitely will mean that fewer Pennsylvanians will become sick and fewer will die, he said.

Even before Thursday’s order, skyrocketing unemployment compensation filings in Pennsylvania this week smashed the state record, underscoring how many businesses had already closed or shed workers.

Wolf, a Democrat, said his “heart goes out to everybody in our commonwealth,” but he also said difficult decisions now will make it easier later.

“These are uncharted waters and, in this situation, we’re not going to do everything perfectly, but we’re going to do the best we can to prevent our hospital system from crashing,” Wolf said in a news conference.

On Thursday evening, Wolf directed all “non-life-sustaining” businesses to close their physical locations, and said state government would enforce the edict starting early Saturday.

It was among the toughest actions by a U.S. governor to combat the spread of COVID-19. But it drew loud complaints that it threatened critical supply chains and economic devastation, and a law firm and a gun store challenged it in court.

By Friday evening, Wolf’s administration issued new guidance that granted exceptions to the timber industry, coal mining, hotels, accountants, laundromats and law firms permitted by the courts.

Wolf also said there’s a “robust waiver process” for businesses that believe they should be exempt from the shutdown order.

Still, it remained unclear Friday whether cities, counties or towns would go along with the order and use police or sanctions to close businesses that defied Wolf’s order.

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CASES AND HOSPITALS

The Health Department reported a sharp rise in the number of confirmed cases on Friday, adding 83 in the past day for a total of more than 260. There has been one death from COVID-19 in the state.

Health Secretary Rachel Levine said cases will continue to surge and that the Wolf administration is working with hospitals to determine their capability to handle such an increase and looking at every option to add bed space, staffing and supplies.

Levine also said they are looking at whether beds for patients with less serious ailments can be created in hotels. Wolf’s administration also has asked hospitals to postpone elective procedures.

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

Meanwhile, schools have been shut down through March, at least, statewide student assessment tests have been canceled for the year and unemployment claims have skyrocketed.


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LAWSUITS

In one lawsuit, a Harrisburg-area law firm challenged his right to shutter law offices throughout the state.

By ordering law firms to close their doors, Wolf deprived citizens of their right to counsel, lawyer William Costopoulos argued in court papers. Costopoulos’ petition noted that the high court, in ordering the closure of state courts this week, creating several exceptions for emergency petitions involving custody, protection from abuse and other matters.

In an interview, Costopoulos also said the executive branch doesn’t have a right to meddle in the judicial.

“The Supreme Court regulates lawyers and the practice of law. The Constitution dictates the due process requirements. And the governor, though his intentions are well meaning in light of this pandemic, does not have the authority to usurp either the Supreme Court or the Constitution when it comes to the practice of law,” Costopoulos said.

The second suit, filed on behalf of a law firm, a gun shop and a would-be gun buyer, asked the Supreme Court to stop Wolf from shuttering businesses determined to be “not life sustaining,” arguing he lacks that authority under state law.

The suit said the state’s gun shops “have been left with insufficient guidance as to their potential status as ‘life sustaining.’”

Cafeteria worker Cathy Piluso hands out free meals at Bensalem High School in Bensalem, Pa., Thursday, March 19, 2020. Pennsylvania reported another big jump in confirmed coronavirus Thursday. The state Department of Health reported that cases topped 180, up 40%.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Cafeteria worker Cathy Piluso hands out free meals at Bensalem High School in Bensalem, Pa., Thursday, March 19, 2020. Pennsylvania reported another big jump in confirmed coronavirus Thursday. The state Department of Health reported that cases topped 180, up 40%.

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BUSINESS REACTION

The Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association president, David Taylor, said the order wasn’t discussed beforehand with any trade associations or business groups, which could have pointed out flaws in his plan.

The Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry said Friday it was pressing for changes to the order, and Wolf’s administration did make at least one change Friday, allowing laundromats to remain open, and a clarification that hotels can stay open.

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ENFORCEMENT

Wolf’s order said more than 150 types of businesses had to close their physical locations. He said the order would be enforced by state troopers, local officials, the state Health and Agriculture departments and the Liquor Control Board.

Businesses that do not comply can be cited, fined, have their licenses suspended and forfeit disaster relief, the administration has said. Criminal charges are also possible, the governor’s office said.

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OPEN AND CLOSED

Among those allowed to stay open are gas stations, grocery stores, beer distributors, drugstores and building materials stores. Restaurants and bars can continue to offer carry-out, delivery and drive-thru food and drink service, but not dine-in service.

Businesses under shutdown orders range from coal mines to building contractors to many types of manufacturers, along with professional offices, such as law firms and accounting offices.

Retailers ordered to close include car dealers, clothing stores, furniture stores, florists, office supply stores and lawn and garden stores.

Even within the shrinking number of retail outlets, practices were changing rapidly. Convenience store giant Wawa said Friday that its coffee and fountain drinks were no longer available as self-service.

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FEDERAL COURTHOUSE

The federal courthouse in Harrisburg has been closed indefinitely because a federal law enforcement agent tested positive for COVID-19 and others are showing symptoms.

The chief judge’s order, posted Thursday, said the U.S. district court remains open, but proceedings scheduled for Harrisburg will be held instead in Williamsport or Scranton.

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Disclosure: The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Michael Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania.

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