By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — In an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus throughout the city, Mayor Jim Kenney has halted all non-essential city government operations and ordered non-essential businesses to close by 5 p.m. today and remain closed at least until March 27.
Philadelphia City Council also has canceled its meetings for the next two weeks. Council President Darrell Clarke said City Council could possibly work remotely to push through a transfer ordinance that would give the Kenney administration $85 million for coronavirus relief efforts.
City courts also will close Tuesday through March 31.
“Let’s be calm but be sensible,” Kenney said during an afternoon news conference in the mayor’s reception room in City Hall. “Look out for each other.”
Philadelphia had nine confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus as of Monday.
The new case is a man who had traveled internationally, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said.
“We want doctors to test more people,” Farley said.
All city offices will be closed Tuesday. Essential city services that will remain open include public safety, health and human services, utilities, sanitation and payroll.
Essential businesses that will be allowed to remain open after 5 p.m. today include health care facilities, veterinary clinics, supermarkets and grocery stores, pet stores, big box stores, pharmacies, discount stores, mini markets, daycare centers, hardware stores, gas stations, banks, post offices, and laundromats and dry cleaners.
Other stores that sell the following products are allowed to remain open: frozen food, personal hygiene products, soaps and detergents, medical and orthopedic equipment, over-the-counter medication, household appliances, electrical materials, plumbing materials, heating materials, home heating fuel, hardware and paint, photography equipment, telecommunications equipment, audio/visual consumer electronics, and gasoline for cars.
Non-essential businesses that do not close will be shut down by the city. Farley said anyone who sees a bar, restaurant or other non-essential business open should call the city to report them. The number is 215-685-7495.
Kenney said his administration is exploring relief options for small businesses in the city. One such option is program that will offer grants and zero-interest loans; more information about the program will be available in the coming days.
Kenney said Monday morning the city was in “uncharted territory” as it continues to respond to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s no handbook for this and we’re doing our best to fly the plane straight and get everything done that we need to get done,” Kenney said.
The mayor stood beside School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson on Monday morning inside Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia, one of the 30 locations citywide offering free grab-and-go breakfast and lunch for students while schools were closed due to the coronavirus.
While standing in front of scores of brown paper bags filled with food, Hite said the city and district were evaluating the free food program and going to determine how the process move forward.
“This is the first day” of the free food program, Hite said. “And we want to make sure that we’re going to look at how we distribute and how many individuals come in to pick up these meals and then we will adjust accordingly.”
Kenney added that resources and meals would be shifted to other areas to meet demand.
Hite said educational packets will be distributed on Tuesday. Hite was not certain yet where they would be made available that morning.
Kenney said officials would extend the free meal program in the event schools are shut down beyond the current two-week closure.
Schools closed, meals distributed
Alonzo Wise’s three children rifled through the brown paper bags that held their free breakfast and lunch for the day on the steps of Tilden Middle School on Monday morning.
“Just wait till we get home, yo!” he told his children, twins Mikel and Mikai, 7, and Jace, 5.
On the first day that schools were closed districtwide in response to the virus, Wise was among a few dozen parents to arrive at the Southwest Philadelphia middle school before 10 a.m. The bags contained shelf-stable foods, including cereal, fruit, milk, crackers, yogurt, cheese or other items.
Wise, who is employed as an inventory worker at local Walmart stores, was off work that day because of store closures due to the virus. He said the district-provided meals were critical.
“On a day to day basis, we depend on the schools while we’re at work,” Wise said. “We factor in them eating at school and providing lunch at school. Them helping us out during a time like this — a disaster — is very helpful.
“As parents, we try to make a way regardless of what it is but it’s very helpful that we ain’t got to go beyond that point to try and figure out what we’re going to do for our kids.”
Free meals for students are offered between 9 a.m. and noon Monday through Friday. The city also opened 50 city-owned facilities, including gyms and recreation centers, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday to provide spaces for students and “limited meals” at 3 p.m.
Monica Lewis, a spokeswoman for the district, said the district had a supply of upwards of 100,000 meals leading into the school closures, which were part of the federal free- and reduced-meal program. That food was expected to last for two weeks.
Community partners are expected to provide free meals on the weekends.
Lewis said the district was working with state and federal officials to prepare for the potential of providing meals beyond the current closures.
“This is something that none of us have really experienced,” Lewis said. “So we really guess as to what happens but we will be doing everything possible to make sure we take care of our students and their families.”
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.