While the parking lot of Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park was converted to a white-tented coronavirus testing site, and New Jersey made plans to close nonessential businesses as soon as Saturday, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Pennsylvania on Friday passed 250, rising by nearly 50% from Thursday’s number.
With patients now in 26 counties, including clusters around Pittsburgh and Stroudsburg in addition to the Philadelphia suburbs, officials said the state was seeing an “exponential” increase in cases.
“We are clearly in the rapid growth phase of this epidemic,” said Thomas Farley, health commissioner of Philadelphia, where the number of confirmed cases reached 67, catching up to Montgomery County, which had 68.
Nationally, more than 19,000 people have been diagnosed with the virus. New York, Connecticut, and Nevada moved to close all nonessential businesses, Illinois came under a “stay-at-home” order, and bars and restaurants in Florida were ordered to shut down all in-house services.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he would likely announce Saturday a limit or even a ban on “gatherings of any sort” and an order for all nonessential businesses to close, saying he had no choice but to “tighten the screws” on social distancing measures.
Meanwhile, Gov. Tom Wolf revised his order for all Pennsylvania businesses that don’t provide “life-sustaining” services to shut down, expanding the types of businesses that can continue with physical operations after mass confusion and backlash from business owners and trade groups.
Laundry facilities, hotels, specialty food stores, insurance carriers, agencies and brokerages, accounting and tax services, and all sectors of the natural resources and mining industry were added to the list of businesses that can remain open.
Enforcement of the order, which could impact up to three million workers, was delayed until 8 a.m. Monday after the state received a large number of waiver requests from businesses, the Wolf administration said. Wolf defended the order as necessary to keep “surging numbers” of cases from overwhelming Pennsylvania’s hospitals.
”We’re not going to do everything perfectly,” he said, but Pennsylvania is going to do everything it can to keep the hospital system from “collapsing.”
Strain was already showing. Montgomery County asked businesses Friday to donate masks to help with a shortage. Delaware County made plans to move its emergency operations center into the empty Glen Mills Schools and create a space to house exposed emergency and medical workers, to avoid endangering their families while awaiting test results.
There remains a shortage of testing materials in Philadelphia, officials said, even as testing sites expand. New Jersey officials continued to press the federal government for more supplies, and Murphy said the Defense Department may detail health workers to New Jersey.
The governors of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut formally requested $100 billion in regional aid in a letter to President Donald Trump and congressional leadership.
“Without this funding, we will be forced to make incredibly difficult choices in light of our new fiscal reality,” the governors wrote. “The principal impact will be borne by the millions of Americans who reside in our states.”
And one state lawmaker was calling for a shelter-in-place order for Philadelphia and Montgomery County — something other counties across the country have implemented. The entire state of California is under such an order.
“We’ve got to get people to stay at home,” State Sen. Art Haywood (D., Phila.) said by phone Friday, briefing reporters on the recommendation he’d sent to Wolf, Mayor Jim Kenney, and the Montgomery County commissioners. “The cases are increasing. I don’t think we need to get to 1,000 cases or 20 deaths before we realize we need to shelter in place.... We are there now.”
Kenney said the city wouldn’t be “forceful” in asking people to comply with restrictions on commercial and social activity, but hoped people would be responsible.
“This is America and Philadelphia, and people sometimes do what they want to do,” Kenney said. “We’re going to try to keep them from doing it. But we’re not going to be locking anybody up.”
Philadelphia officials were working with Wolf’s administration to iron out differences between the lists of non-essential businesses that the mayor and governor have ordered to shut down during the pandemic.
Across the Delaware River, 11 New Jersey residents have died from the virus, and the number of reported cases was nearly 900.
Murphy declared that lab capacity was “no longer an issue in New Jersey,” announcing significant expansions to the state’s ability to test for the coronavirus. The state public health lab will now be able to process 1,000 tests per day, and the state has partnered with BioReference Laboratories to provide 10,000 tests to residents and establish mobile testing sites in five counties.
And all hospitals and qualified health-care centers in New Jersey will waive coronavirus-related testing and diagnostic fees for any uninsured people under an order from the governor.
“Cost will not be a barrier for anyone,” Murphy said. “Increasing our ability to get these residents tested is critical to saving lives.”
And working with the Army Corps of Engineers, the state could add 500 hospital beds within five weeks, and may add more hospital wings at existing facilities, said Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli.
Murphy said 600 people were tested Friday at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s mobile testing site in Bergen County. An additional 350 can get tested tomorrow, and the site will run seven days a week until further notice.
“We urge those who feel healthy to take a step back,” Murphy said, “to allow those exhibiting symptoms, or those who are most at risk, to go to the head of the line.”
In Philadelphia, the parking lot of Citizens Bank Park, the home of the Phillies, became one of 20 testing sites open in the Philadelphia region on Friday. Health-care workers and people who are older than 50 and have symptoms can show up at the site — but Farley warned that the city must prioritize certain people and others may be turned away.
Joe Marsh, 40, wore a mask his doctor had given him as he waited in his car to pull into the parking lot and follow the orange cones toward a volunteer, masked and gloved, holding a sign that read: “Don’t get out of your car.”
“This is the worst I’ve ever felt, honestly,” said Marsh, of Deptford, whose doctor had given him a prescription to be tested. “It feels like an elephant is sitting on your chest.”
Among the people waiting were Jean and Mike Peters of the Graduate Hospital section of the city, who were afraid Mike’s illness of a few weeks ago may have been the coronavirus and Jean’s shortness of breath and fever meant she’d now caught it.
“It’s just stressful not knowing,” said Jean Peters, 65. “So it would be nice to know one way or another if we really need to watch ourselves.”
Montgomery County was preparing to open its first drive-through testing site at 10 a.m. Saturday by appointment to first responders and residents who meet criteria for symptoms, said County Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh.
Nearly half of Montgomery County’s 13 new cases on Friday were people under 40 — including three in their early 20s. Two of Philadelphia’s eight hospitalized patients are in their 20s.
“It does scare me,” said Ana Avila, a 24-year-old mental health worker, who was waiting to get tested at Citizens Bank Park with a dry cough, a fever hovering around 104, and shortness of breath. She’s been calling off from work since March 11 and has been financially supporting herself with her savings.
“It’s spreading everywhere. Even without symptoms, you could possibly still have it,” she said. “I just advise people to stay away from people — like, it’s not worth it.”