Economic relief came for some while anxiety worsened for others on Monday, as owners of New Jersey restaurants, movie theaters, and performance venues were cleared to resume indoor operations starting Friday, but some Pennsylvanians braced to lose their homes or apartments as the state’s moratorium on evictions and foreclosures expired.
As about two dozen protesters in Philadelphia called on state officials to extend the moratorium on evictions as the coronavirus pandemic continues, Gov. Tom Wolf’s office confirmed Monday that he does not have the legal authority to do so.
The ban on evictions and foreclosures, put in place to help renters and homeowners struggling due to the economic impacts of the pandemic, can only be extended if the legislature acts, a spokesperson for the governor said.
Democrats in the state House of Representatives on Monday introduced a package of bills they say would help renters and homeowners, including a proposal to grant Wolf the ability to further extend the moratorium. For now, its expiration clears the way for thousands of eviction proceedings that were put on hold to resume.
“What did they give you?” Kayla Watkins, 24, asked fellow demonstrators outside Philadelphia Municipal Court, referring to politicians. “They gave you $1,200 and a prayer. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t pay rent for months.”
In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement brought long-awaited news. Along with movie theaters and indoor dining, indoor concert venues and performing arts centers can reopen on Friday.
Restaurants are permitted to operate at 25% capacity; movie theaters and performance venues will be capped at 25% capacity or 150 patrons, whichever is less. Moviegoers who buy tickets together may sit together, but otherwise patrons must be distanced.
“Let’s get back to gyms tomorrow, some amount of indoor dining on Friday, back to school next week,” Murphy said. “Again, none of that may be totally, completely, like-it-was-in-the-old-days normal. But those are big steps that we’re going to take together.”
Restaurants must adhere to strict disinfection practices, maintain robust ventilation systems, and post informational signs. Diners will have to remain at their tables except when going to bathrooms and wear masks when not seated, and people who don’t feel well should stay home, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said.
Murphy also increased the capacity limits for weddings, religious celebrations, funerals and political activities from 100 people to the lesser of either 25% capacity or 150 people.
“There is no room for error and no excuse for being a knucklehead,” Murphy said. “Let’s enjoy eating indoors again, or going to a movie, or celebrating with friends — safely and responsibly.”
The United States surpassed six million confirmed cases on Sunday.
His priority, he said, remains on getting students safely back into the classroom. But if the start of the school year doesn’t lead to case spikes, Wolf said he would look at loosening restrictions for restaurants and other businesses. Indoor dining, already allowed in Pennsylvania, is set to resume Sept. 8 in Philadelphia.
In addition, it will take at least several weeks for the commonwealth to get its Lost Wages Assistance program — funded by grant money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency — up and running, and even longer to get the temporary payments of $300 per a week into the hands of out-of-work Pennsylvanians, state labor officials said.
In Philadelphia, where more than 100 Temple University students tested positive for the virus after the first week of school, health officials said they expected to get a clearer picture of the outbreak’s local impact in the coming days.
Over the weekend, the city had fewer than 100 new confirmed cases per day, but the Temple outbreak may not yet be reflected in that data, said Health Commissioner Thomas Farley. The city reported 283 new cases Monday, representing test results reported since Friday.
In Philadelphia, landlord-tenant court will begin hearing rescheduled cases this week, and landlords who won eviction hearings prior to the pandemic can begin removing tenants next week. New evictions in Philadelphia likely won’t get court hearings until November due to a backlog of rescheduled cases, and the city plans to implement an eviction-diversion program in the coming weeks.
The protesters outside Municipal Court on Monday also called on local, state and federal officials to cancel rent and mortgage through the pandemic, cancel all rent and mortgage debt, and provide housing to all Philadelphians without it.
The package introduced in the state House proposes giving more money to the state Housing Finance Agency; creating payment plans for renters; and waiving late fees.
Without the ability to extend the moratorium under the state’s emergency law, the governor has asked the legislature to pass $200 million in funding for utility and rent relief.
On Monday, he also called for lawmakers to pass mandatory paid sick and family leave as residents increasingly return to work or school.
Joined by Democratic lawmakers, including a few from the Philadelphia area, Wolf said such a law would help about 400,000 Pennsylvania workers who do not get any paid time off.
“Workers shouldn’t have to choose between their job and their health, especially during this pandemic,” the governor said.