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Impatience mounts over lack of detail on pope's visit

Confusion and frustration are mounting in Philadelphia over the coming visit of Pope Francis, largely because of few details from planners and city officials about mobility and accessibility within the expected secure zones.

Mayor Michael Nutter walks into Conversation Hall in City Hall to speak about street closures and other security restrictions during Pope Francis' visit in September on July 27, 2015.  ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )
Mayor Michael Nutter walks into Conversation Hall in City Hall to speak about street closures and other security restrictions during Pope Francis' visit in September on July 27, 2015. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )Read more

Confusion and frustration are mounting in Philadelphia over the coming visit of Pope Francis, largely because of few details from planners and city officials about mobility and accessibility within the expected secure zones.

Questions swirl over where and when vehicular traffic will be allowed, how far and where exactly a security fence will stretch, whether the Benjamin Franklin Bridge will be closed, and how SEPTA will handle the mass transit of possibly hundreds of thousands of visitors into and out of the city the weekend of Sept. 26 and 27.

At a news conference Monday, Mayor Nutter said his office would provide updates next week - and told Philadelphians to take a deep breath.

A spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service, which is directing the security operation, said details may not be released until three weeks before the pope arrives. Nutter said that was common protocol.

"I'm not planning to give every nut case in the universe a significant amount of advance information from a security standpoint as to exactly where, when, and how Pope Francis will be transported," Nutter said.

Among the most concerned are expectant mothers due to give birth the Saturday that Pope Francis arrives.

Nutter said two pregnant Center City women had called him concerned they won't be able to get to hospitals if they go into labor that weekend, given expected vehicle restrictions and the crush of hundreds of thousands of people in the city.

"I've had two personal requests from folks due to deliver their babies on the day Pope Francis is to arrive," Nutter said.

The mayor said he gave their information to his Office of Emergency Management and assured them "they will get to the hospital that day."

With 60 days until Francis arrives, big logistics questions are testing the patience of Center City business owners and employees of hospitals, restaurants, and nonprofits. Organizers insist factual updates are near.

"When there's official information to be released, we'll release it officially," Nutter said. "We're not in the business of leaking information or kind of sharing parts or pieces of the information."

In South Jersey, one law enforcement source briefed on the potential security plans said he and others had received little information from the World Meeting of Families.

"Their plan hasn't really been conveyed to us," he said, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the subject. "So we're kind of at their mercy at this point."

He said South Jersey authorities had made plans for both closing the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and allowing traffic. The Delaware River Port Authority said Monday that it expected the bridge to remain open to traffic but that plans could change.

Unofficial maps were posted online over the weekend, purporting to show a huge swath of Center City closed to all vehicular traffic, with a secure perimeter stretching from the Parkway to Independence Hall.

Nutter called the maps phony.

Reliable sources have said vehicle traffic will not be allowed in Philadelphia from the Schuylkill to the Delaware River and from South Street north to Girard Avenue. The security perimeter, likely involving some fencing, will include areas from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to Independence Hall.

Exactly what the official impact map will look like is not public. One source familiar with the details said that officials planning the events had not been given digital or print versions of maps and that perimeters were frequently changing.

Another Secret Service spokesman, Brian Leary, said details on crowd control and restrictions on vehicular traffic and pedestrian movements during the pope's visit to Washington would not be released until three weeks before, either.

In June, officials announced that Pope Francis would visit the Parkway for the Festival of Families event and the papal Mass, the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, Independence Hall, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, and the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.

SEPTA has announced drastically truncated routes with limited stations and departure and arrival times. The agency said it would sell special passes in advance for papal visitors to buy online.

But the agency's website crashed the first day when tens of thousands of people tried to buy the $10 passes at the same time.

On Monday, the beleaguered transit agency scheduled and then postponed a news conference to update plans for reopening sales. Spokeswoman Jerri Williams said the agency called the delay to brief officials and partners before the public announcement.

Meanwhile, many who live or work in Center City have growing concerns over accessibility and transportation.

Karen Hoffman, a nurse at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, says she has been unable to get answers on how she will get to and from work that weekend. All she knows is she will be working - 12 hours on and 12 hours off, four shifts in a row.

"What's upsetting is, no one is telling us anything," she said. "No one knows exactly what we have to do, where we're sleeping. I just think maybe the city should have said, 'Look, health-care workers, we're going to have a shuttle, we'll pick you up and drop you off.' Why couldn't we do that? Why does the whole world have to shut down because the pope is coming?"

Hoffman said the problem was not unique to Jefferson nurses, that she was not the only one in search of answers.

"It's not so much about me, but what about all the nurses with small kids at home? Do they need to pay child care for four days?"

Taxi drivers and bicycle riders worry about how the vehicle restrictions will affect them.

Ron Blount, president of the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania, said that while he had already told members to plan to stay home that weekend, some confirmation or information would be useful.

"We haven't received anything," he said. "Our understanding is the same limits apply to us as regular motorists. It's frustrating."

Bicycles won't be allowed in the security perimeter but may be permitted on nearby streets that are closed to vehicular traffic.

John Boyle, research director at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, hopes the city looks to bikes as a convenient and expedient way to get people around.

"We think bikes are a great opportunity to move people in this case," he said.

At-large Councilman William K. Greenlee, who lives in Fairmount, said his office had fielded many calls from residents concerned about getting in and out of their homes that weekend.

"The pope is someone who wants to bring people together, and it's a shame there's at least, at this point, all this consternation," he said. "I think as the rumors fly around about fencing and restrictions of various sorts, what people would like to know as soon as possible is kind of the definitive answer."

Rob Saxon, a spokesman for Manna, said the food service provider had decided to halt deliveries to the sick on the Thursday and Friday before the pope arrives. He said it plans to double up on deliveries earlier in the week.

The organization delivers in both Pennsylvania and South Jersey.

Many Center City businesses situated between the Art Museum and Independence Hall are waiting to hear if they will be inside or outside a fenced perimeter before determining whether to stay open. Some are considering renting cots and buying showers for their employees who must stay overnight.

"There's going to be a lot of chaos going on in the city, and the transportation in and out of the city is going to be crazy," said Naeemah Henderson, a supervisor at Century 21's store at Eighth and Market Streets, near Independence Hall. Henderson said store officials would decide in coming days if the store will stay open.

Restaurant suppliers are also anxious for information. "They're going to be ordering three days in advance," said Greg "Oz" Ostrofsky, who supplies produce to many restaurants in Center City.

Donna Crilley Farrell, executive director of the World Meeting of Families, echoed Nutter's call for patience and trust in the planning.

The coming of the pope, she said, is a "once-in-a-lifetime event for Philadelphia, for the archdiocese, and for the country."

Editor's Note: This story was correcyed to reflect that William Greenlee is an at-large councilmember who lives in Fairmount, not a councilmember whose district includes Fairmount.


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Inquirer staff writers Jacob Adelman, Michael Boren, and David O'Reilly and staff writer Michael Klein contributed to this article.