Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive/Patriot-News. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter.
HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday announced that all but “life-sustaining” businesses in Pennsylvania must shut down immediately as the state braces for exponential increases in the number of people sickened by the novel coronavirus.
» UPDATE (MARCH 20): Pa. business shutdown sows widespread confusion, impacts up to 3 million workers
Unlike earlier in the week — when Wolf urged nonessential businesses such as salons, gyms, theaters, and entertainment venues to voluntarily close — the latest order came with a stern warning: those out of compliance as of Saturday could face strict penalties.
Those businesses considered “life-sustaining” include grocery stores, gas stations, farms, and transit systems, according to the Wolf administration. The new order applies to the city of Philadelphia, which previously had been allowed to impose and enforce its own restrictions.
"To protect the health and safety of all Pennsylvanians, we need to take more aggressive mitigation actions,” Wolf said in a statement. “This virus is an invisible danger that could be present everywhere. We need to act with the strength we use against any other severe threat. And, we need to act now before the illness spreads more widely.”
The order takes effect immediately and will remain in place “until further notice.”
Restaurants and bars across the state had already been required to stop dine-in services, and they are allowed to continue to offer takeout or delivery, the governor’s office said. On Wednesday, state liquor control authorities said they, too, would begin enforcing the restrictions.
Now, the administration is cracking down across the board and will take action against any non-life-sustaining businesses out of compliance as of Saturday at 12:01 a.m. Asked which authorities would enforce the directive, a spokesperson for Wolf, Lyndsay Kensinger, said in an email, “Law enforcement has a range of potential actions when enforcing the governor’s business closure order, such as notification that the closure order exists; warning to close; citation; and mandatory closure.
"Law enforcement will use appropriate discretion while ensuring that businesses are actively complying with the order,” she said.
The governor’s office issued a list Thursday of businesses that must close their physical operations. They include car dealers, lawn and garden stores, specialty food stores, and furniture stores. His order also applies to offices providing legal, accounting, architectural, and tax services.
“This is an extremely difficult situation for businesses,” said Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. “It will cause real economic harm — it already has. But the governor had to make a tough choice.”
There has been at least some initial confusion about the new directive. Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, said Thursday that the governor’s order initially sent hotels into a panic because it lists “traveler accommodations” as needing to close.
“Some of my hotels are housing doctors who are here” to help coronavirus patients, said Grose, adding that hotels were worried they would have to “throw people out on the street, including medical staff.”
He said the governor’s office has since said that it will clarify hotels can remain open.
“It caused total panic,” Grose said.
Republicans who control both chambers in the state legislature were critical of Wolf’s expanded order Thursday night, with Senate GOP leaders calling on Wolf to provide a process for employers to appeal his order.
House Republican leaders took it one step further, signaling they might sue.
“The sprawling and confusing list provided by the governor is provided with no explanation, and we will explore all avenues available to us to determine whether the action he’s taken is allowed within our state Constitution," they said in a statement.
Earlier Thursday, the state education department announced the cancellation of all standardized tests, including the Keystone exams and the PSSAs, for the 2019-20 school year, joining several states that have already made such a move. The department is seeking waivers from the federal rules that require the tests.
The Wolf administration has been anxiously watching the march of the virus as it continues its unrelenting spread. The initial confirmed cases were at first largely clustered in Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties. Now, there are cases in more than 20 counties in the state.
Earlier in the day, Health Secretary Rachel Levine told reporters that the state had 52 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to 185. On Wednesday, health officials announced the state’s first death from the virus, a 55-year-old man from Northampton County.
Since the start of the week, when the governor’s first statewide shutdown order went into effect, state officials have received 190,000 claims for unemployment benefits, a rapid and steep increase in applications that has the potential to overwhelm the system.
In an interview with reporters Thursday, Labor and Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak acknowledged that the unemployment compensation unit is operating with significantly fewer staffers because of the havoc created by the coronavirus. Many state government offices are shut down, with employees working from home.
But he and other labor officials noted that the lion’s share of applications are being filed electronically, and can be processed without the need for an employee to intervene if they do not contain errors.
“We began preparing for this a few weeks ago, as it became apparent this was not a drill," Oleksiak said. “It was the real thing.”
In ordering the stricter shutdown Thursday, Wolf is drawing on powers that his administration said comes from the disaster emergency declaration he signed on March 6.
When Wolf declared the disaster emergency, he triggered a part of the state’s emergency management law that vastly expands a governor’s powers. They include everything from ordering mass evacuations to limiting or outright halting liquor and firearm sales.
Also among the new powers: controlling “ingress and egress to and from a disaster area, the movement of persons within the area, and the occupancy of premises therein.”
That is the section — coupled with other powers given to his administration from the the state’s Disease Prevention and Control Law — that Wolf’s advisers have said gives the governor the authority to shut down schools and order businesses to close.
100% ESSENTIAL: Spotlight PA provides its journalism at no cost to newsrooms across the state as a public good to keep our communities informed and thriving. If you value this service, please give a gift today at spotlightpa.org/donate.