9:50 PM - September 17, 2020
9:50 PM - September 17, 2020

18,000 Philly school families still lack reliable internet; board hears of coming financial pain

Parents pick up Chromebooks at the Philadelphia School District headquarters in Philadelphia, Pa. on Wednesday, April 22, 2020.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Parents pick up Chromebooks at the Philadelphia School District headquarters in Philadelphia, Pa. on Wednesday, April 22, 2020.

Philadelphia schools are fully online, but an estimated 18,000 low-income families with school-age children still lack reliable high-speed internet service, city officials told the school board Thursday night.

The main issue: It’s tough to reach many parents, and even when they receive information about the city’s $17 million plan to provide free internet service for 35,000 families, they require extensive outreach — sometimes as many as seven contacts before they enroll. Additionally, signing up is not yet a streamlined process: After calling 211 to inquire about the program, families are handed off to schools, which must confirm eligibility.

And while some families without broadband internet access or a mobile wireless hot spot may still be able to access online classwork from their phones, public or borrowed WiFi, officials said they realized the urgency of dependable access in a city where over three-quarters of public school students live in poverty.

“We don’t want students or young people using their cellular phones,” School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said. “We would much rather them having the access and the devices to do that.”

— Kristen A. Graham

7:43 PM - September 17, 2020
7:43 PM - September 17, 2020

Last call for Pennsylvania bars and restaurants: 11 p.m., effective Monday

Server Veronica Knell (center) brings food to customers at Suraya in Philadelphia's Fishtown section on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. The restaurant's garden is open for outdoor dining during the coronavirus pandemic.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Server Veronica Knell (center) brings food to customers at Suraya in Philadelphia's Fishtown section on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. The restaurant's garden is open for outdoor dining during the coronavirus pandemic.

Alcohol sales for on-site consumption at all Pennsylvania restaurants must end by 11 p.m., effective Monday, Sept. 21, under an order issued Thursday by Gov. Tom Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine. Customers will have until midnight to finish their last drink.

The current alcohol-sales deadline in the counties outside of Philadelphia is 2 a.m. In Philadelphia, it is 11 p.m. To-go cocktail sales end at 11 p.m., as well.

Wolf’s mandate could have been more draconian. Wolf had announced last week that the curfew would be 10 p.m., which frustrated the owners of sports bars, in particular.

All drinks in Pennsylvania must be served with a meal, defined as “food prepared on the premises sufficient to constitute breakfast, lunch, or dinner.”

The move-up coincides with a increase in indoor capacity for restaurants outside of the city to 50%, if they self-certify that they are complying with COVID-19 safety precautions. Those that don’t self-certify may remain at 25%, which also is the current limit in Philadelphia. The percentages must include guest-facing staff.

Philadelphia restaurants may seat no more than four people at tables indoors and six people at outdoor tables, including private events.

“As we continue to take critical steps to continue to mitigate the spread of [the coronavirus], we also recognize that this pandemic has taken a significant toll on the food services industry, so we must balance public health and economic recovery,” Wolf said in a statement. “These orders give restaurants the ability to increase indoor occupancy safely while giving customers confidence when deciding to patronize a restaurant.”

— Michael Klein

2:24 PM - September 17, 2020
2:24 PM - September 17, 2020

Philadelphia reports 88 new cases, three additional deaths

A mask covers the face of the Rocky statue in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Friday, April 17, 2020. People are encouraged to wear masks or face coverings to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
A mask covers the face of the Rocky statue in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Friday, April 17, 2020. People are encouraged to wear masks or face coverings to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Philadelphia reported 88 new coronavirus cases on Thursday. Overall, 35,538 residents have tested positive for the virus since the start of the pandemic.

At least 1,774 Philadelphia residents have now died after contracting the coronavirus, with three new deaths reported on Thursday Of the city’s deaths, 879 (roughly 50%) have occurred in residents from nursing or personal care facilities.

— Rob Tornoe

2:10 PM - September 17, 2020
2:10 PM - September 17, 2020

Obesity, a risk factor for coronavirus, keeps getting more common

Obesity, a risk factor for severe COVID-19, continues to become more and more common, according to data released Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Twelve states now have self-reported adult obesity prevalence of 35% or more, up from nine states in 2018 and six states in 2017. Pennsylvania’s adult obesity prevalence was 33 percent, and New Jersey did not have enough data for an estimate.

In the United States and other developed countries, overweight and obesity has been increasing for decades, the result of changing diets, sedentary lifestyles, and genetic factors.

The pandemic has made the situation worse.

A study published in July suggests that daily activity has taken an unhealthy turn worldwide as people stay home and businesses close. Researchers at the University of California San Francisco analyzed smartphone fitness tracker data and found a 5.5% global decrease in average daily steps, or about 287 fewer steps. in the first ten days after the World Health Organization declared the pandemic on March 11. Thirty days into the pandemic, that average daily step count plummeted by 27.3%, or 1,432 steps.

As the CDC noted in Thursday’s report, the tolls of both obesity and COVID-19 are worse in minority groups.

— Marie McCullough

12:30 PM - September 17, 2020
12:30 PM - September 17, 2020

Pennsylvania Supreme Court extends mail ballot deadlines for November election

Absentee ballot applications in both Spanish and English along with fliers sit next to food boxes distributed by the city, school district, and non-profit groups at 401 Domino Lane in Roxborough on Saturday, May 16, 2020.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Absentee ballot applications in both Spanish and English along with fliers sit next to food boxes distributed by the city, school district, and non-profit groups at 401 Domino Lane in Roxborough on Saturday, May 16, 2020.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court extended the state’s mail ballot deadlines on Thursday, a move that could allow tens of thousands of additional votes to be counted — and will likely draw criticism from Republicans, who have argued that votes should be received by Election Day.

State law says mail ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day, but the high court said Thursday that ballots will be counted if they are received by 5 p.m. the Friday after the Nov. 3 election. To count, ballots arriving after Election Day must either be postmarked by Nov. 3 or have no proof they were sent afterward. Ballots that arrive by the new deadline with missing or illegible postmarks would still be counted.

In addition, the court held that state election law allows counties to use drop boxes for hand delivery of mail ballots; denied requests from President Donald Trump’s campaign and others to allow poll watchers to work in counties other than the ones where they are registered; and denied a request that other people be allowed to deliver voters' ballots.

Along with another decision that kicked the Green Party’s presidential candidate off the ballot, the rulings were a boost to Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign in a critical swing state just 47 days before Election Day.

— Jonathan Lai

11:50 AM - September 17, 2020
11:50 AM - September 17, 2020

Pennsylvania reports 933 new cases as numbers continue to trend upward

Pennsylvania reported 933 new coronavirus cases on Thursday. The commonwealth is now averaging over 830 new cases a day over the past seven days, according to an Inquirer analysis, continuing an increase that began earlier this week.

The rise in new cases in Pennsylvania is being driven in part by college students contracting the virus after returning to universities across the state. Centre County, home of Penn State, reported 88 new cases on Thursday and has experienced a spike in new cases since in-person classes resumed in late August.

“We know that congregation, especially in college and university settings, yields increased case counts.” Secretary of Health Rachel Levine said in a statement, stressing continued use of masks and adherence to social distancing guidelines.

The Department of Health said 176,997 coronavirus tests were administered between Sept. 10 and Sept. 16, with 5,700 positive cases. Overall, 147,923 Pennsylvania residents have tested positive for coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.

At least 7,913 Pennsylvania residents have now died after contracting the coronavirus, with 10 new deaths reported on Thursday. Of the state’s deaths, 5,327 (about 67%) have occurred in residents from nursing or personal care facilities.

— Rob Tornoe

10:10 AM - September 17, 2020
10:10 AM - September 17, 2020

Europe facing ‘very serious situation’ with coronavirus cases again increasing

People wearing protective face masks as precaution against the coronavirus walk at Tocadero plaza near Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Michel Euler / AP
People wearing protective face masks as precaution against the coronavirus walk at Tocadero plaza near Eiffel Tower in Paris.

A top World Health Organization official warned Thursday of a “very serious situation” stemming from a resurgence of the coronavirus in Europe, with cases again sharply swinging upward after having been under control for much of the summer.

“More than half of European countries have reported a greater than 10 percent increase in the last two weeks,” Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, told reporters at a briefing. The caseload in seven countries has doubled in the past two weeks, he said.

“Although these numbers reflect more comprehensive testing, it also shows alarming rates of transmission across the region,” Kluge said. He said the rising numbers should serve as a “wake-up call for all of us” to be more vigilant about the transmission of the disease. For now, he said, the bulk of the increase has been among younger, generally more resilient portions of Europe’s population, but he said numbers for older and more vulnerable people are also increasing.

“We have fought it back before, and we can fight it back again,” he said.

— Washington Post

9:30 AM - September 17, 2020
9:30 AM - September 17, 2020

How safe is six feet of social distancing? Two Philly doctors explain.

Staying six feet away is important, but the farther apart, the better.
Cynthia Greer
Staying six feet away is important, but the farther apart, the better.

Public-health organizations have different specific recommendations for interpersonal distancing. While the widely publicized recommendation of the CDC is six feet, the WHO recommends only one meter (a tad over three feet).

The science behind these guidelines dates to experiments more than a century ago using plates spaced out on the ground to measure the distance traveled by respiratory droplets. It was concluded that larger droplets traveled only short distances and that contagion could likely spread to others within only a few feet of the “infector.”

Contemporary studies question whether six feet of separation is sufficient. Air samples taken six feet away from influenza patients contain enough concentration of viral particles to be infectious. Indoor spaces such as offices and stores often have air currents that can more widely circulate particles that remain airborne for extended periods.

Recent experiments have demonstrated that coughing and sneezing create droplet clouds that travel as far as 27 feet. These observations corroborate findings from COVID-19 hospital wards where viral air samples were detected up to 13 feet from infected patients. Therefore, although six feet may be practical, there is no reassurance that even this distance is safe.

Bottom line: The farther apart, the better. For most people, close contact isn’t completely avoidable during day-to-day activities, and this is why mask wearing is an important complement to social distancing.

— Michael P. Savage and David L. Fischman, for the Inquirer

8:45 AM - September 17, 2020
8:45 AM - September 17, 2020

Coronavirus pandemic continues to drive joblessness in the U.S.

The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell last week to 860,000, a historically high figure that reflects economic damage from the coronavirus outbreak.

Before the pandemic hit the economy, the number signing up for jobless aid had never exceeded 700,000 in a week, even during the depths of the 2007-2009 Great Recession.

The Labor Department said Thursday that U.S. jobless claims fell by 33,000 from the previous week, and that 12.6 million are collecting traditional unemployment benefits, compared with just 1.7 million a year ago.

— Associated Press

8:15 AM - September 17, 2020
8:15 AM - September 17, 2020

One Liberty Observation Deck closes indefinitely due to pandemic

Rachel Reeves and Brian Turner look toward South Philadelphia from the 57th floor of One Liberty Place.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Rachel Reeves and Brian Turner look toward South Philadelphia from the 57th floor of One Liberty Place.

So much for catching a view of the city.

The popular observation deck on the 57th floor of One Liberty Place announced it has suspended ticket sales and tours indefinitely due to a decrease in tourists during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The uncertainty surrounding the current economic climate has created challenges that no tourist destination could have envisioned,” Jennifer Hesser, the observation deck’s general manager, said in a statement. “The future of One Liberty Philadelphia Observation Deck is yet to be determined. We hope to once again be able to reengage with the public following this challenging time, and will continue to closely monitor the situation.”

The observation deck reopened in July after shutting down for four months during the peak of the pandemic in the city.

R2L, the splashy restaurant and lounge which also boasted birds-eye-view of the city from the 37th floor of Two Liberty Place, closed in June, another business casualty of the pandemic.

— Rob Tornoe

8:00 AM - September 17, 2020
8:00 AM - September 17, 2020

Trump calls for stimulus payments and massive economic relief bill, upending Republicans

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, in Washington.
Evan Vucci / AP
President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, in Washington.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday called on congressional Republicans to support a massive economic relief bill with “much higher numbers” and stimulus payments for Americans, abruptly proposing an entirely different plan from what the Senate GOP sought to advance in recent days.

Speaking at the White House on Wednesday evening, Trump expressed support — but not an explicit endorsement — for a $1.5 trillion plan unveiled Tuesday by the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in the House. The proposal includes a new round of $1,200 stimulus checks to individual Americans, a provision omitted from an approximately $300 billion plan Senate Republicans tried unsuccessfully to pass last week.

Congressional leaders in both parties have already rejected the Problem Solvers proposal — Republicans because it costs too much, and Democrats because it doesn’t go far enough.

Democrats support additional stimulus payments, which were part of a $3 trillion bill the House passed in May. That measure never became law because the White House and Senate Republicans rejected many other parts of the legislation, including aid to states. Last week, the Senate GOP tried to advance an approximately $300 billion bill without stimulus checks, but Senate Democrats blocked it, calling it inadequate.

— Washington Post

7:30 AM - September 17, 2020
7:30 AM - September 17, 2020

Frustrated parents are pushing school boards to reconsider virtual learning

Parents Anna and Eric Mauro with their daughter Juliette (center) at their Merion Station, Pa., home with a reopen Lower Merion School District Schools sign.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Parents Anna and Eric Mauro with their daughter Juliette (center) at their Merion Station, Pa., home with a reopen Lower Merion School District Schools sign.

The school year has just begun in area districts that have opened virtually amid the ongoing pandemic. But across the region, many parents are adamant that online instruction isn’t working for children or families — and pleading with school boards to consider bringing students back to school as soon as possible, in particular younger children and those with special needs.

Day by day, parents are organizing — writing letters, circulating petitions, forming ad hoc committees, and blizzarding social media with messages to put pressure on districts. The advocacy so far is largely a phenomenon among middle-class and affluent parents, but the struggles exist among kids of all backgrounds — and are compounded for those living in poverty.

In Cherry Hill, parents still upset about the district’s last-minute decision to implement remote learning until November were expected to protest Tuesday evening.

Some districts have announced plans to bring students back — including Lower Merion, which said Monday that it would start returning kindergartners to school the week of Sept. 29 in a phased reopening that would return all grades by the week of Oct. 19.

“We realize that virtual instruction is not ideal, especially for our youngest learners,” spokesperson Amy Buckman said.

Central Bucks also plans to resume in-person school, starting Sept. 30.

— Maddie Hanna, Kristen A. Graham and Melanie Burney