COVID-19 in Pa.: Gov. Tom Wolf orders residents in seven hard-hit counties to stay at home

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announces a stay-at-home order for six Pennsylvania counties during an online news conference on. Monday, 3/23/20 (Screen Capture)

Hours after similar rules went into place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered residents in six more Pennsylvania counties to stay at home for the next two weeks as state officials struggle to contain what his top health official described as the “exponential” growth of COVID-19.

“Before we can recover, we must survive,” Wolf said during a mid-afternoon news conference, as he acknowledged that the the illness that has claimed the lives of six Pennsylvanians “has halted life as we know it.”

The Democratic governor’s order, which takes effect at 8 p.m. on Monday, extends an order already in place in Philadelphia to the four counties around Philadelphia: Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties, as well as Allegheny and Monroe counties. All have been hard hit by the virus.

Speaking from his home in York County, Wolf acknowledged the difficulty that his order will cause in the lives of residents in those densely populated communities. Residents are being asked to stay in their homes and not leave for any reason that is not considered “life-sustaining,” Levine said. Those exceptions include shopping for groceries and purchasing medication.

“We must act as soon as possible and we must act decisively,” Wolf said, adding, “I know this is going to be difficult … these restrictions are unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before.”

The state is not imposing a curfew in the impacted counties, Wolf said Monday. Nor are there any immediate plans for a travel ban, the officials said.

For those battling alcoholism, COVID-19 shuttered state stores are an added danger

The administration also extended its school shutdown order to April 6 statewide, an action that officials said in a statement that was “paramount” in the effort to protect students, teachers and staff in Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts. In a statement, the state Department of Education said that window could be extended, if needed. Wolf said no decision had been made on whether spring graduation ceremonies might be impacted as a result.

At midday Monday, health officials confirmed 165 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to 644 cases in 34 of 67 counties. That’s up from 108 new cases on Sunday, state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said during the briefing. So far, about 60  Pennsylvanians have required hospitalization since March 6, when officials began tracking the virus. That’s about 10 percent of the people who have tested positive, Levine said.

At times, Wolf appeared to struggle to articulate the difference between the state’s standing request for residents to remain at home and the order taking effect Monday night in the six counties. Asked what factors residents of the impacted counties should contemplate if they choose to leave their homes, he was blunt.

“They should ask themselves, again, if they get up in the morning, is there any reason to leave my home? Am I doing that in a way that’s going to save a life,” he said. “If I’m shopping for food or pharmaceuticals. You need to ask yourself, do I really need to make that trip?”

Pa. health officials confirm 165 new COVID-19 cases, bringing statewide total to 644

Levine backstopped Wolf, adding, “These are essential public health measures to prevent the spread of COVID19 in those areas. If we do not do this, anticipate a surge of cases as was seen in Italy. That would overwhelm our hospitals.”

Asked if he might soon extend his stay-at-home order to the rest of the state, Wolf said administration officials were working diligently to contain the spread of the coronavirus, which causes the disease known as COVID-19. Officials, he said, were neither trying to do too little, nor too much, in service of that effort.

“I want to be measured – but don’t want to overreact,” he said. “We’re extending the order to the places where there has been an outbreak. That’s why I’m focusing on those counties and those counties alone.”

Wolf and Levine both said Monday that were plans in place to provide shelter to homeless residents in the affected counties, and that lodging had been found for them. Citing safety concerns, Levine declined to identify those sites.

Also on Monday, the state began its enforcement of an order requiring all non-essential businesses to shutter their operations, or risk legal penalties. Over the weekend, administration officials said they had received nearly 10,000 requests for waivers from that order. On Monday, Wolf said the state had granted about 2,000 of those requests.

“The closing of businesses will bring economic difficulties to every single Pennsylvanian,” he said. “I will not pretend that things will not get worse before they get better.”

So far, the state had found most businesses in compliance with its mandate.

“We had a cabinet meeting by phone a few hours ago, and the state police commissioner [Col. Robert Evanchick]  said there are very few businesses that are not complying.

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press