With coronavirus metrics showing more positive signs and continuing on the decline in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, relief and aid dominated discussion Tuesday: how to spend state budgets, how to help families as the school year begins, and — from one governor — a call to legalize marijuana to pay for pandemic relief.
Speaking at a news briefing where he urged the state legislature to take up “commonsense reforms” in the fall, Gov. Tom Wolf also called on lawmakers to extend Pennsylvania’s moratorium on home evictions and foreclosures beyond its Aug. 31 expiration.
Under state law, the governor does not have the authority to extend the moratorium, prompted by the pandemic, another time. If it is not extended, notices of eviction and foreclosure will be able to be sent after the month ends, Wolf wrote in a letter to the state House of Representatives.
Among his proposals Tuesday for ways the state could use the money it has left from federal coronavirus relief funds were increasing hazard pay, expanding its rent relief program, raising the limit on monthly renters’ assistance, and expanding child care.
In addition, Wolf would like to allow alcohol-tax cancellation or reduction for six months, he said, to help restaurants and bars recover. And he also proposed legalizing recreational cannabis — as he has done before — but this time to fund restorative justice programs and coronavirus relief for small businesses, restaurants, and others. Republican leaders in the legislature quickly dismissed his plans, saying they were unaffordable and a “press release.”
“Repairing the damage of this pandemic is not going to be easy,” Wolf said at the news conference. “The legislature can act right now to get us back on track as quickly as we possibly can.”
In a tweet, Gov. Phil Murphy said he “applaud[ed]” Wolf’s call and hoped New Jersey voters would legalize marijuana in November.
Some unemployment relief is on its way: Pennsylvania will receive grant funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide unemployed people with an additional $300 per week. The federal government is distributing the funds to states under its lost wages assistance program, using money from FEMA’s disaster relief fund.
Pennsylvania agreed Monday to administer the program for its residents, but state Labor and Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak told the Associated Press last week he was unsure when the money will start to reach recipients, and warned the payments may last only five weeks or less before the federal disaster relief aid runs out.
Pennsylvania reported 561 new infections and 26 deaths Tuesday and has a seven-day average of 637 new cases a day, according to an Inquirer analysis, the lowest rate since July 6.
The Department of Health said 157,763 coronavirus tests were administered between Aug. 18 and 24, with 4,630 positive results — a positive test rate of about 2.9%. The figures do not include antibody tests.
The state also unveiled a mobile testing center, a roving RV that will make stops in counties across the state to provide free testing, aiming to serve minority and underserved communities.
In Philadelphia, the average daily number of confirmed COVID-19 cases dropped last week to the lowest it has been since mid-March, and last week’s positivity rate was the lowest recorded yet.
“This improvement in the epidemic isn’t inevitable,” Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Tuesday, crediting the progress to social distancing and mask-wearing. “If we don’t follow these safety guidelines, the virus can clearly come back.”
The city remains “on track” to reopen indoor dining and theaters on Sept. 8, he said. The week that ended Saturday had an average of 98 confirmed cases per day, a number that could change slightly as delayed test results come in. Last week, 3.4% of coronavirus tests among city residents came back positive, Farley said.
Philadelphians can now apply to enroll their children at the city’s access centers, where elementary school students whose parents must work outside the home and have no other child-care options can participate in digital learning this fall. The access centers — initially there will be 32 of them — will open Sept. 8.
They are intended for families who are most in need. Parents can fill out an interest form online or call 215-709-5366.
The application process will include questions about household income, but Deputy Mayor Cynthia Figueroa said the city has not set official income limits.
More information is available at phila.gov/programs/access-centers.
And parents who need help getting their children online before the start of school can call 211 for assistance with the city’s free internet program and to determine whether they’re eligible, the city announced Tuesday.
The new 24/7 hotline, run by the United Way and available in many languages, will provide general information to K-12 families on how to get online through the city’s program. Launched in partnership with Comcast and other entities, it will provide free internet to 35,000 low-income families in Philadelphia’s public, private, or charter schools who currently lack it.
New Jersey again removed Delaware from its quarantine list on Tuesday, and reported 346 newly confirmed cases and five deaths.
Murphy delivered a revised, nine-month budget proposal before a joint session of the legislature held outdoors at Rutgers University’s football stadium in Piscataway. Like Wolf, he proposed spending to address the coronavirus.
Murphy called for new taxes on millionaires, smokers, and others in part to build up a budget with a $2 billion surplus as “a much-needed cushion against revenue shocks from a second wave.”
He thanked New Jerseyans for weathering the last six months, during which more than 15,000 residents died of the virus, and urged people not to let their guard down.
“History will not forget the sacrifices millions of you have made to save lives,” he said. “We cannot yet give up on the practices that are protecting our families.”