Pennsylvania Tops 3,000 Virus Deaths As Data Are Reconciled
Pennsylvania reported another 554 deaths from the coronavirus to pass 3,000 total, while Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday that he is not committing to a particular schedule to lift stay-at-home pandemic restrictions in the state's counties or regions.
The large number of new deaths reported Tuesday by the state Department of Health were spread out over the previous two weeks, the agency said, as it reconciles its figures with deaths being reported by local agencies or hospitals.
Still, it was as stark a figure as the state has reported since the first case of the new coronavirus was detected in Pennsylvania in early March. It comes as the growth in cases appears to slow down in many parts of Pennsylvania and Wolf's administration moves to lighten its restrictions on movement and business activity.
With the economic fallout of the pandemic shutdown growing, Wolf maintained Tuesday that he would stick to a reopening process that relies on what he sees as indicators tied to safety.
Wolf also acknowledged that the state, as it begins allowing many businesses to reopen in 24 counties this Friday, will be unable to investigate or enforce every complaint about an employer not following his administration's safety guidance to protect workers and customers.
On a conference call with reporters, Wolf acknowledged fielding complaints from lawmakers from various regions about lifting restrictions there sooner, or removing hard-hit nursing homes from regional case counts that factor in to whether he will lift restrictions.
However, Wolf otherwise said it is not realistic to ignore case counts in prisons and nursing homes, and he said that setting a schedule to reopen counties would be arbitrary.
“What we’re trying to do is keep people safe ... and we’re going to be guided by that as we were guided in opening 24 counties last week," Wolf said. "The next round, when it comes, is going to come when we feel it's OK to open another series of counties.”
Wolf promised an announcement on Allegheny County and southwestern Pennsylvania “soon.” The county, with 1.2 million people, and its immediate area remain under the governor’s strictest orders, the so-called “red” designation.
In other developments:
About 865 additional people tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the state Health Department. That lifted the statewide total to nearly 51,000.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher than the state’s confirmed case count because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. There is no data on how many people have fully recovered.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
MASS TRANSIT FUNDING
With its revenues plummeting, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is going to miss its July payment to the state Department of Transportation for mass transit.
Under state law, the turnpike is supposed to send PennDOT $450 million per year to subsidize mass transit. The turnpike made its quarterly payment last month, but PennDOT granted an extension of the July payment in light of the pandemic’s impact on turnpike revenues, Acting Transportation Secretary Yassmin Gramian said Tuesday.
At least in the short term, federal coronavirus relief money will make up the difference for the state’s mass transit agencies, which include the Port Authority of Allegheny County and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, she said.
Meanwhile, PennDOT is getting ready to reopen driver license centers in the 24 counties where Wolf is lifting some pandemic restrictions. Customers and staff alike will have to wear masks and observe social distancing, Kurt J. Myers, deputy secretary for Driver & Vehicle Services, told reporters.
REAL ESTATE TRANSACTIONS
Starting Friday, real estate activity can resume in areas designated as yellow under the governor’s reopening plan, albeit with limitations. That includes no more than two people in a property at one time for in-person inspections, showings or walk-throughs, and social distancing precautions must be taken as well, including masks.
Hank Lerner, director of law and policy for the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors, said social distancing guidelines mean that open houses are pretty much off the table. But, he said, the Wolf administration should have allowed three people to go into houses together to accommodate both spouses and their agent. Otherwise, two such tours might be necessary, thus potentially increasing exposure to the virus, Lerner said.
In areas still designated as red, the only allowed transactions are where a buyer’s property was already under contract prior to Wolf’s March 19 order to close non-life-sustaining businesses. Someone who sells their house under one of those contracts is allowed to buy another house to live in, although the problem with that, Lerner said, is that the person they are buying from may not have a place to live since they, in turn, cannot buy a house in a county designated as red.
The association, in the meantime, is backing legislation that would allow agents to resume operations as long as they adhere to social distancing practices and other federal guidelines.
MAIL-IN BALLOT BOOM
A million or more Pennsylvanians may end up voting by mail in the primary election that is four weeks away.
Until this year, Pennsylvanians who did not want to vote in person needed to have an excuse that fell under a specific category in order to obtain an absentee ballot and vote by mail. An October state law authorized no-excuse mail-in ballots for the first time.
As of Monday, 949,000 applications were submitted for mail-in or absentee ballots, according to the Department of State. During the 2016 primary election, 84,000 absentee ballots were cast in Pennsylvania.
The deadline for registered voters to ask for an absentee or mail-in ballot is May 26. They must be returned by 8 p.m. on Tuesday, June 2, the primary day.