Wolf orders shutdown of schools, public spaces in Montgomery County as Pennsylvania enters two-week COVID response

Governor Tom Wolf at a March 12 press conference announcing Pennsylvania's new COVID-19 response strategies. Source: Commonwealth Media Services.

Gov. Tom Wolf has asked Pennsylvanians to avoid public gatherings and recreational activities as he announced the shutdown of schools, community centers and entertainment venues for two weeks in Montgomery County to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Wolf’s instructions for “significant and decisive social distancing” will take effect Friday, March 13, he said.

“They seem severe but are far less draconian then what we may need to do in the future if we don’t act now,” Wolf said Thursday during a 2 p.m. press briefing with state health officials.

There are at least 22 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Pennsylvania, Wolf said, all in counties on the eastern edge of the state.

The state has an additional 219 people under investigation, Wolf said. And health officials have tested or intend to test an additional 81 residents, state Health Secretary Rachel Levine said.

Department of Health data show 116 Pennsylvanians have tested negative for the virus.

Thirteen of Pennsylvania’s known COVID-19 patients are in Montgomery County, the third-most populous county in Pennsylvania. Wolf is ordering the shutdown of movie theaters, gyms, sporting events and concert venues there for two weeks.

Wolf also strongly urged the closing of non-essential retail businesses in Montgomery County. But he said that critical infrastructure across the state, including grocery stories, pharmacies, gas stations and hospitals, would remain open.

His directive for Montgomery County also affects all public and private K-12 schools, pre-k centers, and higher education campuses there.

Montgomery County’s public K-12 schools enroll 112,256 students, 30 percent of whom qualify to receive free meals at school a federal hunger prevention program, state Department of Education data show.

State education officials have submitted a waiver request to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would allow them to serve free and reduced-price meals to school children in the event of unexpected school closures, agency spokesman Eric Levis said Thursday morning.

Wolf acknowledged that the directive is bound to have massive economic consequences in the suburban Philadelphia county.

Pennsylvania law does not require employers to offer their workers paid sick days or family leave.

Wolf said he did not have any recommendations for workers who would need child care. But he did say that his administration has advised state and local leaders that they may need to provide financial assistance to those affected by the shutdown.

“We recognize that there will be a requirement for funding and financial resources, and everyone understands that’s coming,” Wolf said.

Levine said the mitigation efforts Wolf announced would buy the state “precious time” as it seeks to prevent the virus from spreading widely throughout the community, especially in the densely populated Philadelphia suburbs.

Statewide, Wolf is encouraging that all events with over 250 people be postponed, that people avoid public recreational activities, and that religious leaders use discretion to prevent the virus from spreading through their congregation.

Wolf’s announcement comes days before lawmakers in the state House and Senate are slated to return to Harrisburg. 

Senate leaders said in an emailed statement on Thursday that they plan to proceed with session days scheduled for Monday, March 16 through Wednesday, March 19.

Wolf and his Democratic allies are expected to push next week for the passage of a proposal that would grant the Governor new power to declare a statewide public health emergency. 

The legislation, sponsored by Senate minority leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, would allow the governor to issue an emergency declaration in response to natural disaster, disease outbreak, or a nuclear, chemical or bioterrorism attack, among other circumstances.

The proposal would let the Department of Health suspend existing regulations and issue new, temporary rules and reporting requirements for all healthcare facilities and practitioners.

These rules would last for up to 90 days, barring an extension approved by the General Assembly. 

Any information, except for aggregate data, collected during the emergency would be shielded from the state’s Right-to-Know law.

The bill would also broadly invoke the state’s Good Samaritan law for public health workers and bystanders to protect “any person who provides assistance” under the emergency declaration act from civil liability. 

Costa’s bill was approved unanimously by the Senate and now awaits action in the House.

A senior legislative staffer involved in the negotiations said lawmakers are also expected to consider telemedicine legislation.

A telemedicine bill from the Senate has been stalled since November, when House lawmakers slipped in an abortion-related provision that elicited a veto promise from Wolf.