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Coronavirus concerns close Montgomery County schools, 63 Philly schools

With major sports events canceled, the Wells Fargo Center closed, and Pennsylvania officials recommending all “non-essential retail” to shutter in Montgomery County, disruptions to daily life are mounting.

Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania spoke Thursday at a new conference at Pennsylvania Emergency Management Headquarters, where he said he was ordering schools and other large gathering places to close in Montgomery County, which has the largest number of coronavirus cases.
Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania spoke Thursday at a new conference at Pennsylvania Emergency Management Headquarters, where he said he was ordering schools and other large gathering places to close in Montgomery County, which has the largest number of coronavirus cases.Read moreMarc Levy / AP

The coronavirus hit the region with its hardest punch yet Thursday, as Montgomery County schools were ordered to shut down for two weeks, and a cascade of closures took out venues such as the Wells Fargo Center and the Kimmel Center, canceling events from Philadelphia Orchestra concerts to 76ers and Flyers games.

The action in Montgomery County, which advised residents to avoid non-essential travel, had the unintended effect of forcing the closure Friday of 63 of Philadelphia’s 200-plus schools. Many Philadelphia schoolteachers live in Montgomery County and won’t be able to go to work, the School District announced late Thursday night.

Earlier Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf directed all schools, community centers, gyms, and entertainment venues in Montgomery County — where more than half of the state’s 22 cases of the coronavirus have been found — to shutter starting Friday in a sweeping “social distancing” measure aimed at mitigating the spread of the illness.

“That is the epicenter of this epidemic at this point,” Wolf said at a news conference in Harrisburg. Philadelphia students at the affected schools should not report to school Friday, the district said. It did not indicate whether the schools would be open next week.

Also late Thursday, Mastery Charter Schools, the largest charter network in Philadelphia, announced that all of its schools would be closed Friday “to prevent a chaotic and potentially unsafe situation tomorrow” because of the impact of Montgomery County school closures. Officials said they expected to re-open Mastery schools on Monday, but noted that “the situation is fluid” and that decision will be re-evaluated over the weekend.

The governor’s Montgomery County directives, which within hours created disruption and uncertainty for the county’s nearly 830,000 residents, was the state’s first government-mandated school closure. It represented the biggest mass interruption of daily life since Pennsylvania’s first coronavirus diagnosis a week ago.

Across the region Thursday, the virus’ toll began to look increasingly dystopian: Grocery stores were imposing purchase limits. Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic bishops said Catholics, in the midst of Lent, do not have to attend Sunday Mass until further notice. Students at the University of Pennsylvania were packing up under orders to leave campus by Sunday, while the number of schools switching to online classes, extending spring break, or closing for cleaning and preparation continued to grow.

The moves were a microcosm of a national clampdown. Maryland and Ohio became the first states to close all public schools. Disneyland will close on Saturday. New York moved to ban assemblies of more than 500 people.

Both Wolf and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy recommended canceling all public gatherings of more than 250 people, while Philadelphia banned events with 1,000 or more attendees for the next month and urged organizers of gatherings between 250 and 1,000 people to cancel them.

“It is crucial at this time that everyone in Philadelphia do their part to reduce the spread of this virus,” said Philadelphia Public Health Commissioner Thomas Farley. “While they may seem inconvenient, these steps are vitally important to protect residents and visitors in our city.”

Philadelphia was keeping some schools open, saying the district would evaluate closures on a school-by-school basis if the outbreak worsens. Several Philadelphia schools have more than 1,000 students; Northeast High, the city’s largest school, has 3,500 and was one of the schools closing Friday. All school-sponsored trips and large activities were canceled.

Farley said earlier Thursday that many Philadelphia families lack adequate support to cope with unexpected school closings or rely on free school meals for sustenance. “Without schools open, our young people would be at risk," Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said.

Pennsylvania’s coronavirus case total rose to 22 and New Jersey’s to 29. The U.S. government expects “thousands more cases,” said Vice President Mike Pence, who is heading the federal government’s response.

Philadelphia, where there is still only one case of the virus, now has 1,000 people under self-quarantine due to travel or known contact with a coronavirus patient, Caroline Johnson, acting deputy health commissioner, told the city Board of Health during its Thursday meeting. Many of those in quarantine do not have symptoms; 45 of them have been tested.

By midweek, officials on both sides of the Delaware River had said it was possible the infection could be spreading among their communities: Investigators still have not been able to trace the origins of three presumptive positive cases in the two states.

Efforts to disrupt spread of the virus in Montgomery County were to begin Friday. The county postponed all jury trials, Wolf “strongly recommended” closing all nonessential retail facilities in the county, and county officials urged residents to vote by mail in the April 28 presidential primary rather than show up to polling places.

Supermarkets, pharmacies, and gas stations in the county will remain open, and essential services including police, fire, and EMS will continue operating.

“People need to understand the seriousness with which these decisions were made,” said County Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh, who said the commissioners “fully support” Wolf’s directives. “We make these decisions because we are looking back at countries where mitigation of the disease is low, and what we see is that there is a window of opportunity where the spread of the disease can be halted, and it was often [done] too late.”

County officials are also temporarily withholding permits for “mass gatherings,” which under county code are defined as large groups congregating outdoors or in temporary structures. The Willow Grove and Plymouth Meeting malls planned to close for two weeks starting Friday, its owner said.

King of Prussia Mall said it would remain open and leave decisions to close or stay open to individual retailers. “With respect to Governor Wolf’s statement today, the Governor did not mandate store closures and did not define what nonessential retail is,” the mall said in a statement posted at CBS3. “We will continue to monitor the situation closely and will comply with any federal, state or local government requirements as they arise.”

The Department of Health said it would issue more guidance for merchants.

Some said they were worried about what the governor’s directive could mean.

“We have a lot of questions,” said Ryan Rosenbaum, executive director of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, who feared an economic downturn. “How am I going to pay for day care? My concerns are shared by barbershops and restaurants and entertainment complexes and insurance companies throughout the county.”

» READ MORE: State ordered shutdown of Montgomery County schools due to the coronavirus brings relief to some, stress to others

The county now has 13 coronavirus cases, with four more presumed infections announced Thursday. The new patients were a man from Skippack Township and a woman from Conshohocken, who both had been exposed to another patient, and a couple from Lower Merion Township that had traveled to another area of the country where the virus is present, officials said.

Six Chester County police officers were preemptively quarantined because they responded to a police call on Sunday along with a Montgomery County police officer who has since tested positive for the virus.

In total, 219 Pennsylvanians have been identified for testing. Of those, 116 have tested negative and 81 tests are pending, said Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine.

In New Jersey, where officials stopped short of requiring closures or cancellations, six more people tested presumptively positive for the virus.

“We’re as close to mandating it as we felt is necessary at this time,” Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said, noting the governor could ban gatherings in the future. Later Thursday, the state suspended all new jury trials until further notice, and said all legislative hearings in Trenton would be closed to the public.

Health officials began rating each county’s risk level, assigning Bergen County “moderate” risk with 13 cases and Monmouth County “above minimal, but not quite moderate” with five cases. The risk in all other counties, including those in South Jersey, was rated none to minimal.

Montgomery and Chester County courthouses were implementing restrictive policies meant to prevent the spread of the virus and decrease the number of people in courtrooms, and the Commonwealth Court postponed a slate of oral arguments. The offices of at least two area members of Congress and presidential candidate Joe Biden closed to the public on Thursday; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders canceled the public opening of his local field office.

At the Wells Fargo Center, all Flyers, 76ers, and Wings games were canceled until further notice and all events through March 31 were postponed. That included Thursday night’s Dan + Shay concert, which was rescheduled for September, and Friday’s sold-out Billie Eilish concert. The arena was closed for a deep cleaning, said Comcast Spectacor. The Kimmel Center, too, closed all its venues and said it would work to reschedule performances.

As the list of canceled events piled up, fear of job losses ran through the hotel, hospitality, and food service industries, and officials began to take steps to respond to potentially dramatic social and economic fallout.

Some Philadelphia city councilmembers proposed protections that would ensure workers continued receiving health and paid-time-off benefits and create a temporary moratorium on utility shutoffs, evictions, foreclosures, or tax liens. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration also sought City Council’s approval for up to $85 million in emergency funding. The Board of Health voted Thursday to implement new regulations for the coronavirus that would allow the city to legally enforce quarantine and isolation.

Hotel managers concerned about hourly employees were discussing what to do as travel grinds to a halt — especially after President Donald Trump imposed a ban on travelers from Europe on Wednesday evening — and events are nixed or postponed, said Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association.

“They are doing their best to make sure that their folks are taken care of,” he said, “but there is not much they can do when you’re looking at rock-bottom occupancy rates."

The following schools will be closed Friday. There is no word on whether they will remain closed next week:

Amy At James Martin; Amy Northwest; Baldi Middle School; Barton, Clara School; Building 21; Cayuga School; Central High School; Comly School; Jay Cook Elementary School; Day, Anna B. School; Dobbins, Murrell High School; Dobson, James School; Duckrey, Tanner School; Edmonds, Franklin S. School; Ellwood School; Emlen, Eleanor C. School; Engineering & Science High Sch; Fels, Samuel High School; Feltonville Arts & Sciences; Feltonville Intermediate; Finletter, Thomas K. School; Fitler Academics Plus; Frank, Anne School; Franklin, Benjamin Elem School; Girls, Phila High School For; Greenberg, Joseph School; Henry, Charles W. School; Hopkinson School; Houston, Henry H. School; Howe, Julia Ward School; Jenks Academy Arts & Sciences; Juniata Park Academy; Kenderton Elementary; King, Martin Luther High Sch.; Lankenau High School; Lingelbach, Anna L. School; Loesche, William H. School; Logan, James School; Mastbaum, Jules E. High School; Mccloskey, John F. School; Moffet, John School; Moore, J. Hampton School; Northeast High School; Olney Elementary School; Parkway-northwest High School; Pennell, Joseph Elementary; Pennypack House School; Pennypacker, Samuel School; Philadelphia Military Academy; Potter-thomas School; Randolph Technical High School; Rhawnhurst School; Richmond School; Rowen, William School; Roxborough High SchoolSaul, Walter B. High School; Shawmont School; Solis-cohen, Solomon School; Vaux Big Picture High School; Wagner, Gen. Louis Middle Sch.; Washington, Grover Jr. Middle; West Philadelphia High School; Wilson, Woodrow Middle School.

Contributing to this article were staff writers Pranshu Verma, Vinny Vella, Oona Goodin-Smith, Jeremy Roebuck, Rob Tornoe, Kristen A. Graham, Sam Wood, Laura McCrystal, Sean Collins Walsh, Julia Terruso, Jonathan Tamari, Maddie Hanna, Susan Snyder, Ellie Rushing, Jason Laughlin, Christian Hetrick, Peter Dobrin, and Julie Shaw.