As he announced plans to begin reopening Pennsylvania’s economy in early May Monday, Gov. Tom Wolf also took steps to prevent more of it from reopening sooner.
The Democratic governor announced in a televised news conference that his statewide stay-at-home order has been extended from April 30 through May 8, which is also when he said construction will resume in Pennsylvania. Effective immediately, he said limited curbside liquor sales would begin statewide, along with online-only auto sales.
Although the liquor sales were supposed to begin Monday, the Center Valley and Hellertown Fine Wine & Good Spirits shops that are supposed to be participating in the pilot program both appeared closed.
Wolf also vetoed a state Senate bill passed as part of a Republican-led legislative effort that would have allowed businesses to reopen sooner Monday.
“This is not an easy decision, but it is the right course for Pennsylvania,” Wolf said in announcing his veto of Senate Bill 613. “Reopening tens of thousands of businesses too early will only increase the spread of the virus, place more lives at risk, increase the death tolls and extend the length of the economic hardships created by the pandemic.”
Hundreds of protesters from throughout the state who rallied on the Capitol steps in Harrisburg Monday scoffed at that notion and voiced disagreement with Wolf’s measured and cautious approach, which they consider heavy-handed. Some carried signs advocating for “freedom over fear” or comparing his shutdown to tyranny.
The rally was mostly peaceful, however there was at least one documented confrontation between opponents of Wolf’s handling of the pandemic and a counterprotester, who told a protester he was putting financial interests ahead of people’s lives. An exchange between the counterprotester and several armed protesters–captured in a Reuters video–ended when capitol police escorted the counterprotester away.
Wolf in his news conference said he supported the right of the protesters to air their grievances and hoped they would stay safe. He said he would not try to shut down the event, which was held in violation of statewide social distancing requirements instituted last month to help prevent the virus’s spread. Many protesters were crowded together in front of the Capitol building, only some of whom were wearing masks or face coverings.
He also stressed that the sacrifices made by many Pennsylvanians over the past six weeks are “paying off,” which he said is evident in the flattening of the curve that represents the number of new cases of COVID-19.
On Monday, the state health department reported that the number of new cases dropped Sunday to under a thousand, which represents a signficant decline from just last week.
Pennsylvania is currently fourth in the nation in terms of the total number of cases it has, according to Woldometer data. Only New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have more cases, although all three of those states have also tested much more extensively than Pennsylvania has to date.
Due to differences in how data is collected and deaths are being reported, as of Monday Worldometer reported that Pennsylvania had 33,914 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and that 1,348 residents of the state have died from the disease.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health announced in a tweet Monday that as of 12 a.m. the state had a total caseload of 33,232 and 1,204 total deaths from COVID-19.
At the county level discrepancies in terms of total deaths can be seen when the reports shared by some county cororners are compared with the health department’s totals. For example, on Friday the Lehigh County coroner announced that 41 county residents had died of COVID-19, while as of Monday, the state’s death toll for the county was 33.
During the news conference, health secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said her office would be working with county coroners to try and reconcile the data, which is a crucial tool used by officials as they calculate and plan for the reopening of the state.
Wolf said that although May 8 is the target date for the beginning of the reopening, the return to a kind of normalcy will not be immediate, statewide or without continued public health and safety measures in place.
“I want to caution that we will not be resuming operations as they were in February,” he said in a news release. “We’re going to continue to take precautions that limit our physical contact with others, and we will closely monitor this to see if it can be done safely.”
Wolf’s order mandating the use of masks or face coverings by employees and customers in retail establishments like grocery stores took effect late Sunday, and for the most part local shoppers seemed to be complying with it.
Saucon Source visited two grocery stores in the area–the Giant supermarkets in Coopersburg and Lower Saucon Township–which began to alert customers to the new rule last week.
No customers were observed without face coverings in the Coopersburg store, however five people were seen in the Lower Saucon store shopping without a mask or face covering, including several who were paying for items at registers where an attendant was on hand.
Another store associate had to manage a long line of customers that stretched from the front of the store to the back of the dairy aisle. Within the line customers did their best to maintain six feet of distance between each other as they moved forward and eventually were funneled to an open register.
Wolf said in announcing the mask mandate and other new regulations ordered by Levine last week that failure to comply with its requirements could result in enforcement action such as citations, fines and/or license suspensions, although it is possible that businesses would only receive a warning initially.
According to publicly available totals that were last updated April 9, Pennsylvania State Police have yet to cite any businesses for failure to comply with Wolf’s March 19 order that closed businesses defined by his administration as non-life-sustaining. A total of 224 businesses had received warnings as of April 9, including 11 businesses in the region policed by Troop M, which includes Lehigh, Northampton and Bucks counties.
Due to the shutdown, many business owners have sought economic relief in the form of loans and even money from the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, which has so far distributed $300,000 in two rounds of COVID-19 relief grants to hundreds of small local businesses.