Pennsylvania moved to shut down all nonessential businesses on Monday, while New Jersey shuttered schools and clamped down on casinos and restaurants, as the two states, along with the rest of the nation, tried to hold off the spread of the coronavirus without collapsing the economy.
Two days after urging social distancing and nonessential businesses to close in the southeastern corner of the state, Gov. Tom Wolf expanded his order across the commonwealth, an extraordinary step he said was the “only way to prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed by patients.”
- N.J. announces third death; Wolf orders statewide shutdown; Philly orders nonessential businesses to close
- A special election in Bucks County won’t be delayed because of coronavirus, judge rules
- MANNA, Meals on Wheels, and other food services for the homebound are losing volunteer drivers afraid of coronavirus
He stopped short of mandating the closures, saying he would not send out “the state police or National Guard to enforce” his request.
It was a more sweeping but less forceful directive than in New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy told casinos, racetracks, theaters, and gyms to close, and said anyone defying his order could be legally cited. But he ordered closures of nonessential retail, recreational, and entertainment businesses to 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. daily, and limited restaurants and bars to takeout service and delivery only. He also signed an order mobilizing the National Guard to assist with other tasks.
The orders amounted to a sweeping suspension of everyday life as the number of reported coronavirus cases crept higher. Eight new cases were reported in Philadelphia among the 76 cases confirmed in 14 counties statewide. New Jersey’s tally reached 178 and included the state’s third reported death. And Montgomery County said the number of people in quarantine there had surpassed 400, while the county’s number of patients grew to 30, including a 2-year-old.
“I know for all of us the next few weeks are going to be challenging...,” Wolf said during what has become a daily briefing in Harrisburg, “but we need to take this disease seriously.”
Hospitals prepared for a likely surge of coronavirus patients while questions remained about the state’s testing capacity. Both Penn Medicine and Main Line Health set up drive-through testing centers for prospective patients with symptoms — and doctor’s referrals — to get swabbed without leaving their cars.
As the stock market plunged by double digits, the White House told all Americans to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, hours after New Jersey, New York, Delaware, and Connecticut had banned assemblies of more than 50.
The shutdown that has seized the region in the 11 days since the first Pennsylvanian tested positive for the coronavirus intensified elsewhere, too, as hospitals stopped doing elective surgeries, Philadelphia court trials were suspended, state park facilities were closed, and the University of Pennsylvania became the first area college to cancel its spring commencement.
“Given the uncertainty of when it might again be safe to bring such large groups together, and the rapidly changing scale of the pandemic, we know that this change is the only responsible action we can take,” Penn president Amy Gutmann wrote in an email to the campus community.
Grocery stores, gas stations, and pharmacies can stay open, and trash collectors and medical facilities will continue operating, officials said. All state liquor stores will close indefinitely at 9 p.m. Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board said.
The state closure came soon after Mayor Jim Kenney ordered government offices closed to the public and told nonessential businesses to shut down by Monday evening. Operations including trash collection, sanitation, and public safety will continue, Managing Director Brian Abernathy said.
Philadelphia officials said the “essential” business list also included day-care centers, banks, post offices, laundry facilities, veterinary clinics, and hardware, electronic, and big-box stores.
“We are well aware of the potentially devastating effect this will have on the businesses and workers of this city,” said Kenney.
Within hours, the stark economic impact was becoming clear across the region.
“Just trying to be in the retail space in 2020 is already a difficult endeavor,” said Justin Moore, general manager of Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books in Germantown. "And something like this just makes it catastrophically worse.”
Still, he wasn’t upset with the mandate. “I don’t think there’s any blame that can go around,” Moore said. “We seem to be in a situation where there are more questions than answers.”
Though officials seemed to be counting on residents to comply with the closures, they said they could clamp down if necessary. Wolf’s office said it would enlist local police and agencies to enforce the order if needed.
Wolf’s counterpart across the river said anyone violating executive orders could be cited for a disorderly persons offense, and said county prosecutors were briefed on enforcing the measure.
“If we see there is willful disregard for what we’ve put in place, we reserve the right to ratchet up the pressure,” Murphy said.
Murphy also ordered the National Guard to mobilize, not for enforcement but to help with possible problems like distributing food, assisting in testing, or opening hospital spaces.
Philadelphia will have inspectors “prepared to enforce” Kenney’s shutdown order, said Abernathy, and businesses that do not comply would be subject to health department violations, spokesperson Mike Dunn said. But officials did not say whether city inspectors would patrol for compliance or how they would enforce the closures.
In Montgomery County, officials prohibited eating and drinking in bars and said they would take violators to court. Restaurants can only provide take-out, delivery, or drive-through services, County Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh said on Monday.
But, she said, “we want kitchens to be open. We need to eat. We want people to have access to food.”
A 2-year-old girl in New Hanover Township became the first pediatric coronavirus case reported in Montgomery County, and officials there are trying to determine the source of infection for at least three patients.
“We expected at some point we would see community spread,” Arkoosh said. “That further enforces the need for mitigating measures.”
Employees in the county operations building in Norristown get their temperature taken each day, and commissioners are checking theirs twice daily, said Arkoosh.
Despite the shutdown, Tuesday’s special election for Bensalem’s seat in the Pennsylvania House was poised to go on, after a judge late Monday denied an injunction request to postpone it.
“It doesn’t make much sense for us to ask residents to practice social distancing and to stay home from work, but then also encourage them to go out to vote in the middle of a public health crisis,” said Commissioner Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia, chair of the Bucks County Board of Commissioners and chair of the Board of Elections. “This is no time to play games with people’s lives.”
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission stopped taking cash or credit cards in person and will bill all drivers without an E-ZPass through toll-by-plate. SEPTA switched Regional Rail schedules to a limited service plan used in severe weather, and said customers with March monthly and weekly passes can call SEPTA Key customer service for refund information.
Amid the concern over the pandemic, profiteering was growing. More than 800 complaints about price gouging — on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, paper towels, and other items — had come in to Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office by Monday afternoon, his office said on Twitter. Shapiro has asked consumers who believe they’ve been victimized to email his office with the name and location of the store, the product, and its price.
The governors of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut also discouraged residents from going out between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. While Wolf said it was OK for residents to go out to, for instance, pick up a prescription at a pharmacy, he repeated pleas for people to stay home most of the time.
After some New Jersey bars were filled with people celebrating St. Patrick’s Day over the weekend, Murphy implored residents to take the pandemic seriously.
“Some people think this is fake news,” Murphy said. “This is not fake news. This is real.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the closure order affecting New Jersey restaurants and bars. Only takeout service and delivery are allowed.