The coronavirus has crept into nearly 300 elder-care facilities in Pennsylvania, where it has been responsible for half of all virus-related deaths in the state, officials said Wednesday, and it has struck the Philadelphia region with particular ferocity.

The statistics were released on a day when Pennsylvania instituted an order requiring all businesses and in-person customers to wear protective masks, and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy suggested that the mask look is likely to continue as a “new normal” takes hold after the pandemic subsides.

In New Jersey, which said the virus has been detected in 95% of its elder facilities, the total death toll climbed to 3,156 with Wednesday’s daily report, including 19 reported in Burlington County, and 71,030 positive cases were reported. Pennsylvania has logged 647 deaths and more than 26,000 total cases.

The rate of increase in new cases has flattened substantially in both states and nationwide. But the Pennsylvania data from the elder-care facilities, mined in what Health Secretary Rachel Levine called a “deep dive,” were disconcerting.

Health Secretary Rachel Levine and Gov. Tom Wolf a news conference last month. Levine signed an order Wednesday that spells out new procedures for businesses that are open.
Commonwealth Media Services / Commonwealth Media Services: Natalie Kolb
Health Secretary Rachel Levine and Gov. Tom Wolf a news conference last month. Levine signed an order Wednesday that spells out new procedures for businesses that are open.

In 297 of those centers, 3,316 coronavirus cases were verified. In Philadelphia, 34 coronavirus-related deaths were reported; 60 in Montgomery County, and 41 in Delaware County.

Philadelphia-area hospitals are reaching capacity due to a surge in coronavirus cases and may soon begin transporting patients to other facilities, city Public Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Wednesday.

That said, Farley added that the region’s health-care system has not been overburdened. "We have plenty of availability in hospitals,” he said.

While the increases in cases have trended downward, officials on both sides of the river were doubling down on measures aimed at crushing the curve.

SEPTA announced that it had supplied a limited number of surgical masks to transit riders Wednesday to protect against the spread of the coronavirus.

The supply may be nearly depleted, said SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch, but about 20,000 have been made available on buses and Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines trains, as well as at the 69th Street, 15th Street, Suburban, and Jefferson stations.

Pennsylvania officials took the dramatic step of requiring employees of all businesses that are open to in-person customers wear masks or facial coverings. The order also mandates that businesses deny entry to customers who are not wearing masks, unless the business sells food, medication, or medical supplies.

The decree requires that businesses provide space for employees to have breaks and meals while maintaining social distance; conduct meetings and training virtually; prohibit all nonessential visitors; and install shields or other barriers at checkout areas, or take other measures to ensure social distancing.

“This order provides critical protections for the workers needed to run and operate these life-sustaining establishments," said Gov. Tom Wolf.

Wolf, a Democrat, on Wednesday said he would veto a bill passed by the GOP-controlled state House and Senate that would broaden the definition of what constitutes an essential business allowed to remain open during the state’s coronavirus shutdown.

It passed both chambers, primarily along party lines. While Republicans hold majorities, they would not have enough votes to override a veto.

Meanwhile, some residents of both states are receiving their stimulus checks, signed by President Donald Trump, and retailers no doubt are hoping that some of that money comes their way.

U.S. retail sales plummeted 8.7% in March, the largest one-month drop in the nearly three decades of tracking, as many businesses have been forced to close to help limit the spread of the coronavirus.

According to the Commerce Department’s preliminary report, auto sales dropped 25.6%, while sales at clothing stores plummeted 50.5%. Sales at gas stations, impacted by a drop in commuting and lower oil prices, fell 17%.

By contrast, sales at grocery stores skyrocketed 26%, as Americans stocked up on food and supplies while shelter-at-home rules went into effect. Online sales also rose 3.1%.

People wait to shop for groceries at a Wegmans in Maryland in this Washington Post photo.
Marvin Joseph
People wait to shop for groceries at a Wegmans in Maryland in this Washington Post photo.

Prior to last month, the largest one-month drop in retail sales occurred during the fall of 2008, the peak of the financial crisis, when spending dropped 4% in both October and November.

Some of the businesses that are prospering might be bending the rules.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced Wednesday that the state has taken over 600 actions against businesses accused of price-gouging products related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“When people are concerned about keeping their families healthy and paying their bills, they shouldn’t have to worry about becoming the victim of unscrupulous market practices,” Grewal said. “If you’re a business looking to take advantage of New Jersey consumers, we’re coming for you, and don’t bother trying to hide behind an online profile.”

Most complaints are against businesses raising prices on items like surgical masks, hand sanitizers, disinfectant sprays, food, and bottled water. Violations can carry a $10,000 fine on first offense, and $20,000 for each one after.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and Gov. Phil Murphy.
Jeffrey Granit* / AP
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and Gov. Phil Murphy.

New Jersey is bending the rules for crematoriums and cemeteries. State Police Col. Patrick Callahan said Wednesday that they will be allowed to operate later than usual to process bodies stressing the mortuary system. He also said it was likely that cemetery hours would be extended in the coming days.

While Trump said that on Thursday he will announce guidelines for states with low coronavirus rates to potentially reopen, Murphy made it clear Wednesday that New Jersey would not be on that list.

He predicted that New Jersey restaurants will see a “new normal” when the state ultimately ends up reopening the economy.

Murphy said “he could easily see” a situation where restaurants would be limited to serving only 50% of their capacity; be ordered to perform temperature or saliva checks; require employees to wear masks and gloves; and adopt stringent sanitation protocols.

“The notion we’re going to turn the clock back … to three months ago,” Murphy said. “I just don’t see it."

Staff writers Rob Tornoe, Erin McCarthy, Sean Collins Walsh, Patricia Madej, and Ellie Rushing contributed to this story, as did Gillian McGoldrick and Cynthia Fernandez of Spotlight PA.