This week marked five months since Pennsylvania and New Jersey’s first cases of the coronavirus were confirmed, and officials in both states saw some positive news on the health front: Pennsylvania’s seven-day average of new cases fell Friday to 747, its lowest point in nearly a month, and the transmission rate in New Jersey appeared to be declining.
But the virus’ other impacts showed no sign of slowing across the region. One of Philadelphia’s most beloved museums expanded layoffs and said it would stay closed this year; organizers of high school sports in Pennsylvania scrambled to find a way to save the fall season; colleges faced more challenges over how to resume classes; and New Jersey extended aid to some of the thousands of renters and landlords who have struggled with payments.
That $25 million program, funded through the federal CARES Act, will allow owners of small apartment buildings to apply for grants to cover lost payments from renters who couldn’t afford to pay between April and July. Those landlords would then be required to let renters off the hook for back payments and late fees.
The aid will be available to landlords who own properties with between three and 10 rental units, which covers about 30% of all New Jersey renters and 27% of low- and moderate-income renters.
“Many of these smaller buildings aren’t just personal investments for their owners,” Gov. Phil Murphy said. “They’re also investments in neighborhoods and communities.”
Still, the economic fallout keeps roiling many businesses.
The Please Touch Museum, a Philadelphia fixture for more than 30 years, will stay closed at least until 2021, it announced Friday. The children’s museum in Fairmount Park also laid off two dozen more workers, its third round of job cuts in six months.
Meanwhile, fall high school sports remained a question mark. The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association said the start of sports statewide would be delayed by two weeks while the organization talks with Gov. Tom Wolf, who recommended Thursday that all interscholastic and recreational sports be suspended until 2021.
The lingering uncertainty and risk created by the virus led Princeton University on Friday to become the latest in a growing group of universities that have settled on remote instruction for all undergraduate students this fall.
Scrapping a plan to bring about half its undergraduates back to campus, the Ivy League university said it will restrict the number of students living on campus, allowing only those whose circumstances make it difficult or impossible for them to study from home or who have specific research needs.
“The pandemic’s impact in New Jersey has led us to conclude that we cannot provide a genuinely meaningful on-campus experience for our undergraduate students this fall in a manner that is respectful of public health concerns and consistent with state regulations,” Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber wrote in a message to the campus community Friday afternoon.
A few hours to the west, faculty, students and staff at Pennsylvania State University, which plans some in-person classes this fall, were raising questions about the university’s request that students sign a COVID-19 compact before returning to campus.
The compact includes a section asking students to assume the risk of exposure to the virus from attending Penn State and acknowledge that it could result in illness or death. It also asks students to acknowledge that the rules and precautions put in place by the university, state, and federal government “may or may not” be effective in protecting against the virus.
Some instructors sent a letter to students alerting them to the language in the compact on Friday, and faculty and students have expressed concern to administrators, said two people who work at the university.
”Requiring students to agree to what is essentially a waiver releasing Penn State from responsibility from any COVID-related problems that they may suffer, including death, is unacceptable — particularly given that Penn State’s testing plan and other safety measures are substandard and insufficient,” Sarah J. Townsend, an associate professor and an organizer of Coalition for a Just University at Penn State, a faculty group working for greater transparency, health and safety standards, said.
A university spokesperson said Penn State is “committed to meeting and exceeding the guidance of health experts,” and said the compact’s purpose was to outline the university’s safety requirements and ask students to commit to following the guidelines. Students can choose to learn remotely if they do not want to return to campus.
“We feel it is important that students and families understand there is COVID-19 risk everywhere in our daily lives, and to reinforce the importance of following the public health guidelines established by the state and public health experts for the return to campus learning,” spokesperson Wyatt DuBois said in an email.
Pennsylvania tallied 758 new cases and 15 deaths on Friday, while Philadelphia said it had 134 new cases. That was slightly higher than daily tallies earlier this week; officials are watching to see if the case counts keep rising. New Jersey reported 384 new cases and 12 deaths.
Murphy had said he noticed what seemed to be an uptick in people wearing masks outdoors, citing recent trips to the Seaside Heights boardwalk.
On the heels of a public awareness campaign launched in New Jersey this week to educate people about contact tracing, Murphy asked residents to cooperate with tracers’ phone calls.
According to state data so far, 45% of those who have tested positive for the virus and answered calls from contact tracers have refused to give them any information. And fewer than half of people who have been exposed to an infected person have been notified of the exposure, the state estimated.
“This is about public health, period. No one is out on a witch hunt here. No one is asking questions that have any focus other than trying to stop the spread of the virus,” Murphy said.
New Jersey launched an online dashboard highlighting its tracing efforts, a database that residents can use to see the progress the state is making in tracking the spread of the virus. The contact tracing information was added to the state Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard, which contains updates on current cases, deaths and more.
The site now includes a map of where contact tracing is underway as well as data on how many state residents are answering and participating in the calls. The dashboard, which will be updated weekly, provides information on the percentage of cases successfully interviewed, those who provided contacts, and contacts who were notified. According to current data, 61% of cases were successfully followed up.
On Thursday, Philadelphia officials reported a similar problem, with tracers getting no response from about one-third of city residents they had called.