WESA Daily Briefing: July 8, 2020
News on the coronavirus pandemic, protests, 2020 election and more from around Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and southwestern Pennsylvania.
Find all of the WESA Daily Briefing posts here.
Editor's note: This post will be frequently updated with the latest news.
6:00 p.m. - New two-week order allows outdoor dining, still prohibits indoor
Starting Friday, a new two-week order from the Allegheny County Health Department will ease some restrictions on area bars and restaurants -- if they have outdoor seating.
The order by Health Director Debra Bogen allows restaurants and bars to serve customers outside until 11 p.m. Alcohol may be served, but there will be a three-drink limit. A ban on indoor drinking and dining will continue -- dining areas can be used only for through traffic -- though takeout and delivery service will still be permitted.
The order also will allow the Rivers Casino on the city's North Side to reopen, although masks are required and smoking prohibited. The order also allows gatherings of up to 50 people for outdoor events: The indoor limit remains at 25.
The move was expected: At a Tuesday afternoon briefing, Bogen said she was "considering modifying the event limits and restrictions on outdoor food and beverage service at restaurants" after a July 2 order shut down all sit-down dining and drinking. County officials have been alarmed at a surge in cases of COVID-19 that began in mid-June. The number of positive test results for the disease have been at or near record highs in recent days, and health officials say that bars and restaurants have been hotspots for spreading the virus. Bogen has said that consuming alcohol in particular often leads to a failure to socially distance or wear masks.
5:33 p.m. - Lawmakers take up fight against governor's climate strategy
Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives wants to ensure that it can block Gov. Tom Wolf’s effort to impose a price on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants as part of a consortium of states.
Wolf, a Democrat, has made joining the 10-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative a centerpiece of his strategy to fight climate change in a major carbon-polluting state. The House voted to pass a bill, 130-71, which would require legislative approval to join the consortium. Four Republicans joined most Democrats in opposition to it.
Wolf plans to veto the bill, which still requires approval in the Republican-controlled Senate. Wolf’s administration is drafting regulations that it maintains could usher Pennsylvania into the consortium in 2022.
4:29 p.m. – Code Orange air quality day for ozone issued for Thursday
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Southwestern Pennsylvania Air Quality Partnership have issued a Code Orange Air Quality Action Day in the region tomorrow. Action Days are declared when ground-level ozone or fine particulates are expected to exceed health standards: Those conditions mean people with breathing problems may be at higher risk of respiratory difficulty.
The Allegheny County Health Department is asking the public to take a number of precautionary measures, including limiting daytime driving, not refueling before 7 p.m. and not burning fires outdoors.
4:10 p.m. – Educators weigh how to teach special education students this fall
Reopening schools this fall is full of complications. One of the thorniest is how to serve students with disabilities.
There’s a strong desire to get special needs students into schools because so many require specialized services that are hard to deliver online
But those same students can have chronic medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus. And when they’re in school, they tend to work with lots of different adults, says Carole Clancy, director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Special Education
“The more complex the students, the more adults work with them, and the more shared adults work with them,” Clancy said.
The state says districts will need to come up with their own plans to protect medically vulnerable students — and that even within those plans there will need to be flexibility.
3:04 p.m. – Pitt, CMU want to educate international students, reverse Trump policy
Pennsylvania colleges and universities enrolled more than 50,000 international students last year. But those students may now be forced to leave the country depending on their colleges’ course offerings.
The Department of Homeland Security says it will not allow international students to stay in the United States if they are enrolled in all online classes or if their school switches to go fully online mid-semester.
University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. student Koyna Tomar says the sudden change to her visa category was very disorienting.
“I was half-asleep and I just couldn’t believe that it was real. I thought it was like a hoax of some kind. Like it’s not possible they would pass something like that,” Tomar said.
Now schools and students are scrambling to figure out what to do. Some universities had planned for “hybrid” courses, a combination of in-person and online courses, and could now alter plans to ensure international students stay compliant with the law.
Acting Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli said the rule is meant to encourage schools to open. Schools such as Penn say international students shouldn’t be treated differently than domestic students during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are calling for the Trump administration to walk back the policy change. Pitt and CMU back the Association of American Universities which says universities should educate international students in the safest way they determine. Pitt and CMU plan to use a hybrid model with both in-person and online learning in the fall.
2:58 p.m. - State's Independent Fiscal Office projects economic impact of COVID-19 shutdown
The state of Pennsylvania this began operating under a temporary budget. Now, lawmakers will face tough choices when that budget ends in November.
Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office estimates that the state faces a nearly $5 billion budget deficit over two years.
And it could get worse.
Director Matthew Knittel says there’s a lot of uncertainty, especially given the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania.
“We had assumed that things would generally continue to reopen after they had been in green status by the end of June. That may have been pulled back a bit,” Knittel said. “We had also assumed that schools would reopen in the fall. It’s unclear if that will happen.”
Knittel says only time will tell if consumers will go back to their old spending habits.
Another big question is what the federal government will do.
Gov. Tom Wolf wants Congress and President Trump to approve another stimulus package and give states more flexibility to use federal money to fill in revenue losses.
Taxes on businesses, personal income and sales all took big hits because of COVID-19. For this past fiscal year, which ended in June, Pennsylvania had $3.2 billion less than it expected in revenue.
2:40 p.m. - Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh reorganizes
The diocese says it has implemented a staff re-alignment, as it faces ongoing fiscal challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The move involves eliminating 11 positions and reducing the hours of two others.
In a press release Tuesday, Bishop David Zubik also announced the transfer of Diocesan operations from the pastoral center on the Boulevard of the Allies downtown to Saint Paul Seminary in Crafton.
2:01 p.m. – Allegheny County has another single-day COVID case high
Allegheny County Health Department officials reported 230 new COVID-19 cases, the second highest single-day count since the county started tracking cases in March. The ages of those infected range from 7 months to 96 years old. Officials say the results are from cases dating June 23 through July 5.
The number of deaths in Allegheny County increased by two to 196.
Statewide, positive COVID-19 cases increased by 849, bringing the total to 92,148. State health officials also reported 25 new deaths.
8:25 a.m. - Indoor dining to be restricted in Allegheny, Westmoreland counties
State officials are expected to announce the restriction for five counties this week, reports the Tribune-Review. The newspaper reports, "The state will prohibit indoor dining at restaurants and bars in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties beginning Thursday. The restrictions will remain for at least two weeks," according to officials who asked not to be named.
7:20 a.m. - Allegheny County Jail inmate tests positive for COVID
Another inmate at Allegheny County Jail has tested positive for COVID-19. The county announced the diagnosis yesterday, after going about two months without reporting new infections among the jail population. Twenty-four other inmates whose results were still pending earlier this week have tested negative for COVID-19. To date, 29 inmates and eight jail employees have been diagnosed with the disease.