As the region remained in a historic state of shutdown Wednesday, the coronavirus was blamed for seven new deaths in the Philadelphia area, including the first in the city. Meanwhile, the crisis intensified in New Jersey, and Pennsylvania smashed a record with over a half-million unemployment claims filed.
The numbers of positive cases and fatalities, and the prodigious list of cancellations, seemed to grow by the hour. But the toll extracted by the ubiquitous virus of anxiety has become immeasurable, as people around here and across the country engage in the surreal exercise of keeping their distance from neighbors, friends, even family members under government orders in an effort to halt the spread.
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No one can say when this will end. President Donald Trump had said he hoped that some semblance of normality would return by April 12, Easter. If it does, it won’t be evident in the Catholic churches of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which announced it had canceled all public Holy Week services.
The fallout from the outbreak was evident in Pennsylvania’s unemployment offices, which as of Tuesday had received a staggering 540,000 claims since Gov. Tom Wolf issued his directive on March 16 to close nonessential businesses, according to a state senator. The previous record for a month was 168,200.
At least 14 deaths have been attributed to the coronavirus in the state, and over 1,100 positive tests. Wolf extended his stay-at-home orders, already in effect in Philadelphia and its neighboring counties and a handful of others, to Lehigh and Northampton Counties — the Lehigh Valley.
In New Jersey, where the worst of the outbreak has been concentrated in the New York metropolitan area, the numbers reported Wednesday were significantly more robust — 18 more fatalities, bringing the state toll to 62, and 736 more positive tests, pushing the total past 4,400. Three deaths of elderly individuals were reported in Burlington County.
Murphy reiterated that nonessential businesses needed to obey his order to let employees work from home. He also said that a Union County man arrested for domestic violence had also been charged with harassment for coughing on police and medical personnel and telling them he had the coronavirus.
The governor said that four temporary hospitals provided by the Army Corps of Engineers would be open in a few weeks and that the state eventually would add 2,300 beds.
With their vulnerable populations, care homes have been a particular concern among health officials.
A Philadelphia care home said on Tuesday that 11 of its residents and a contract employee had tested positive for COVID-19 since March 19. City Public Health Department spokesperson James Garrow said the department is investigating potential cases in two other city care homes, but declined to elaborate.
Three residents of a care home in Mount Laurel, Burlington County, who tested positive have died, officials said. Two employees of the facility also have tested positive.
Philadelphia, the county with the highest number of cases in the state, reported its first death, a man in his 50s who had an underlying medical condition, said Health Commissioner Thomas Farley.
Delaware County experienced its first two coronavirus-related fatalities — an 85-year-old resident of Ridley Park who had been hospitalized for several days, and an 86-year-old woman hospitalized in Montgomery County and previously a resident at the Rosewood Garden Rehab & Nursing Center in Broomall.
And Montgomery County announced its second death, an 84-year-old Abington Township man who had underlying health conditions, said Val Arkoosh, chair of the Board of Commissioners and a physician. She said the county logged 60 new cases, bringing the total to 219, second in the state to Philadelphia’s 342.
The pandemic has decimated school calendars, which has caused complications, particularly in Philadelphia, where some students can’t participate in online instruction for lack of internet access.
On Wednesday, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said the district would need to buy up to 50,000 Chromebooks to launch a remote-learning program.
“We’re going to do the best we can with all the resources we can make available to all students,” Hite said outside Webster Elementary in Kensington, one of 80 sites across the city where students can get free meals during the closures.
Meanwhile, the state has decreed that no matter how long the shutdowns last, the 2019-20 school year will end June 30.
“By statute, we can’t extend school past June 30,” said Pedro Rivera, the state’s education secretary. "That’s actually when schools fiscally close, then we go into the next year’s fiscal cycle.”
All schools are closed until at least April 6, but Rivera reiterated that the shutdown could last much longer.
The coronavirus also has affected the election calendar. The legislature unanimously has approved pushing back the Pennsylvania primary from April 28 until June 2. It also voted to consolidate polling places by up to 60%, meaning fewer poll workers would be needed. Wolf was expected to sign the bill.
Hard-hit state and local governments were counting on significant federal help as Congress debated a contentious coronavirus aid bill, which passed the Senate by unanimous vote just before midnight Wednesday. The measure includes a massive boost to unemployment assistance and onetime checks of $1,200 to individuals making up to $75,000, and $2,400 for married couples with earnings up to $150,000. The House is expected to vote on it Friday.
Murphy said that although the amounts in the deal reached by the Senate on Wednesday were way below the $100 billion for which he, Wolf, and the governors of Connecticut and New York had lobbied, he would take it. “Is it everything we want, it is not,” Murphy said. “But I’m in the category of let’s not let perfect be the enemy of good."
At a time when clouds have been far more plentiful than silver linings, one did emerge in Philadelphia. Since the city went into shutdown mode, crime has dropped to some of the lowest levels in years. An Inquirer analysis of preliminary incident data published by the city showed that the number of reported crimes was down by more than 25% compared with the average week over the past year.
Other types of violent crime were down significantly, with aggravated assaults without a firearm down 35% from the average, and residential burglaries down by nearly a third.
And it appears that some of Pennsylvania’s distilleries are getting into a wholly different business for which demand is challenging supplies — hand sanitizer — copying a recipe posted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
The Boardroom Distillery in Lansdale, Eight Oaks Farm Distillery in New Tripoli, and others are giving away bottles or selling it at low cost to first responders and civilians.
U.S. Reps. Mary Gay Scanlon and Brendan Boyle, both Pennsylvania Democrats, and State Sens. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) and Tim Kearney (D., Delaware) said in a statement that they had worked to remove regulatory barriers and that 130 small craft distilleries in the state will now be able to make hand sanitizer.
On the subject of alcohol, state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said Wednesday that the Liquor Control Board “is looking into a soft reopening” of its stores, which have been closed for more than a week.
“It is either a possible delivery or possible curbside pickup kind of thing,” Corman said. “I think the LCB is working on that as we speak."
That might have been news to the LCB. It said Wednesday night that it was not looking into reopening stores but was consulting with Wolf and public health officials.
In an email, LCB spokesperson Elizabeth Brassell did say, “We are evaluating the resumption of limited online sales.”