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WESA Daily Briefing: July 20, 2020

Erin Keane Scott
90.5 WESA

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.


5:40 p.m. – Lawmaker introduces bill that would create remote learning task force

Pennsylvania schools are discussing if and how to reopen as COVID-19 case totals continue to climb. Many districts will implement virtual learning into their school year.

One state lawmaker wants more research on virtual learning's efficacy and fairness to people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Pennsylvania State Representative Kristine Howard introduced a resolution to create a task force to study the effects of remote learning on students.

She's concerned that parents aren't getting the information they need to make the best decisions, since there's been little research done to examine the effects of remote learning on students' grades and well being.

"We hear from parents who are very worried about sending their kids back to school,” Howard said. “Then we have parents who are very worried about what happens to them and their jobs if their kids are not in school."

Howard says most of the data the state has now is anecdotal, but she thinks peer-reviewed data on test scores and equity would give parents a more accurate picture.

The statewide task force would continue its research throughout the coming school year.

5:02 p.m. – Pirates, Blue Jays discuss how to play safe games at PNC Park

The Pittsburgh Pirates are in discussions with the Toronto Blue Jays about hosting home games for the team at PNC Park this season. According to Pirates President Travis Williams, the two organizations and Major League Baseball are talking about how they might safely accommodate the team at the park. The Blue Jays are looking for a temporary home after Canada rejected the team’s plans for home games in Toronto, citing the travel schedule and risk of spreading coronavirus.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA

4:52 p.m. – Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate remained high in June

Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate in June was 13 percent for the second month in a row, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry, holding a few points higher than the national picture.

While the state's rate is down from a peak of 15 percent in April, it's still higher than all previous points on record in the past 40 years, including during the Great Recession. That's despite some full and modified business reopenings around the state.

Mark Zandi is chief economist with Moody’s Analytics in Chester County.

“Many of these jobs that we’ve lost aren't coming back, in retail hospitality, transportation, recreational activities,” Zandi said. “At least not coming back for a while."

The fact large numbers of people are just now applying for unemployment means layoffs are ongoing.

Zandi says another federal government stimulus package would be critical for keeping families and businesses afloat.

4:40 p.m. – Industry experts respond to state grandy jury report on natural gas operations

A recent state grand jury concluded state agencies exerted poor oversight of the natural gas industry.

In 2007, Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Penn State, calculated that trillions of cubic feet of natural gas could be recovered from the shale.

Engelder, now retired, says the industry did make mistakes when it came to tapping into that reserve. Like not doing baseline water chemistry testing.

But Engelder doesn’t agree with all the findings from the grand jury. He calls tying shale development to health problems “conjecture.”

“It is very clear from some of the epidemiological studies that such things as asthma and fracking are associated with one another. The cause, though, is the issue.”

Engelder thinks the regulations that came with the state’s Act 13 were a good move. On whether more regulations are needed.

“You can always look at a risky industry and say, well, let's do more inspections. Let's make them plug more wells where there's methane migrating in. So yes, there's always the opportunity to even have stricter rules.”

The grand jury’s recommendations include increasing the distance between drilling sites and homes and tighter regulations for transporting wastewater.

4:12 p.m. – Judge to fast-track vote-by-mail lawsuit filed by Trump campaign

A federal judge has agreed to fast-track the vote-by-mail lawsuit filed by President Donald Trump’s election campaign against state election officials. Arguments are currently scheduled to begin September 23 in Pittsburgh.

The court’s limiting the scope of discovery to information counties and the Department of State have already assembled for a report on the presidential primary commissioned by state lawmakers.

The narrowed focus is an attempt to balance the need to expedite the case with election officials’ obligations to administer the general election.

Trump’s lawsuit seeks to allow Pennsylvanians to serve as poll watchers anywhere in the state, not only their county of residence.

The case is also trying to limit in-person ballot delivery to county election offices and require counties to reject mailed ballots that arrive without a secrecy envelope.

3:26 p.m. – Changes could impact Citizen Police Review Board

Voters in the city of Pittsburgh could decide this fall on whether to grant new power to the police review board.

The Citizen Police Review Board could potentially get more power to compel officers to participate in investigations if voters say so in November. Councilor Ricky Burgess introduced legislation to put the question before voters. He says protests about police accountability, in Pittsburgh and nationwide, have made the issue especially important.

“I have always been concerned and supportive of the independent review board,” Burgess said. “Some of these issues I have thought about for some time. But these events led me to believe that this was the time to strengthen it and make it robust.”

Currently there are few consequences if an officer refuses to participate in a review board investigation. But if voters pass the amendment, a refusal to participate could result in termination. Council is set to vote on whether to put the question on the ballot this Tuesday.

2:02 p.m. - Philly hospital creates model to project COVID spread

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's PolicyLab has created a model to project how COVID-19 will spread in the coming weeks.

It's based on a number of environmental and community factors such as population density, daily temperatures, humidity, and social distancing.

And the results are not great for Pennsylvania, where the number of cases has grown steadily the past month as the state has reopened.

PolicyLab director Dr, David Rubin says that while wearing a mask is important to stifle the spread of the virus, it's not nearly as effective as social distancing.

“There’s no doubt in our models that the most effective intervention area is not simply masking, it’s distancing,” Rubin said. “And I think once people recognize it’s both masking as well as some of these hygiene and disinfecting recommendations, that’s the recipe that will allow us to contain transmission and try to get things back to order.”

The model indicates that Pennsylvania, particularly counties in southern Pennsylvania, could be looking at even higher infection and mortality rates than when the virus peaked back in April. 

12:24 p.m. – Latest COVID numbers

Allegheny County reported 172 new COVID-19 cases Monday, bringing the total to 6,435. Those positive cases are the result of 2,173 tests spanning July 3-19. Allegheny County Health Department officials also reported four new hospitalizations and no new deaths.

Statewide, the number of COVID-19 cases increased by 711, bringing the total to 101,738. The state health department reported three new deaths.  

7:29 a.m. – Weekend coronavirus numbers

Saturday and Sunday saw an increase of 273 positive COVID-19 cases in Allegheny County. One new death and one new hospitalization were reported over the weekend.

Statewide, cases increased by 763, pushing the total number past 100,000. Another 15 deaths were reported, bringing the total number to more than 7,000.