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WESA Daily Briefing: August 17, 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.



6:00 p.m. – Yes, more people are riding bikes

One impact of the coronavirus pandemic is that residents of Allegheny County are traveling less compared to 2019.

Nearly 20 percent across the Pittsburgh Statistical Area, according to analytics company Streetlight Data. The region’s trails recorded jumps of more than 30 percent on some segments, according to data collected by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission.

Ted King-Smith says he’s seen a lot of new faces at Golden Triangle Bikes downtown, where he is the fleet and service manager. He thinks people have more time to discover regional amenities such as riverfront trails.

Since they can’t go their gyms in the normal functions or the pools or to sporting events or to other activities, have taken on cycling.

Data from HealthyRide, Pittsburgh’s bikeshare system, reflect that change. Executive director David White says the average trip length has increased 60 percent.

Instead of linking the last mile or first mile of their transit trip with bikeshare, people are just taking the whole trip on a bike now.

The City of Pittsburgh plans to add 60 miles of bike infrastructure over the next two years.

5:22 p.m. - State athletic league says sports should still happen

The PIAA says it is still lobbying Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration to change its recommendation that all high school sports be canceled for the fall semester.

Despite the risks, the Association believes student athletes can compete safely if coronavirus precautions are followed.

Speaking on WITF’s Smart Talk, Associate Executive Director Melissa Mertz says sports are already happening in communities across Pennsylvania. Her argument: those events would be much safer if they were school-sanctioned:

“There’s lacrosse, there’s softball, baseball, soccer. It’s happening. We even had a wrestling tournament a couple weekends ago,” Mertz said. “So we feel that the school environment is a little safer because of all these standards we’ve put in place for our schools to abide by.”

Standards, Mertz says, like not allowing teams to shake hands after games, disallowing spitting or removing mouthguards, and other rules changes designed to keep the field COVID-safe.

The Association had been hoping to meet with Governor Wolf's office to see if the administration would withdraw its recommendation, but so far that hasn't happened.

4:52 p.m. - COVID-19 testing hotline now open to everyone, not just Highmark customers

Highmark’s COVID-19 testing information hotline is now open to all Western Pennsylvanians, instead of just people who are insured by the company. When someone phones the hotline they're connected to a call center who directs them to the nearest testing locations, including those that are not affiliated with Highmark. Similar information can be also found online through the Allegheny County Health Department. Highmark’s hotline is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

4:03 p.m. - Pennsylvania college students grapple with whether to continue their degree programs

The commonwealth’s higher education system has so far lost at least 100 million dollars due to the pandemic.

Campuses with congregate settings are no longer as safe as they were before the coronavirus took hold.

But Elizabeth Bolden, president and CEO of the PA Commission for Community Colleges, says those institutions are ready to take students on in a pandemic-riddled world.

“They were so active in the online space prior to the pandemic. Nearly 86 thousand students take an online course from a community college every year,” Bolden said. “Thirty percent of our credits were earned in the online space, and it was the fastest growing segment of our enrollment.”

But, many students still haven’t made up their minds about whether to go back to school.

Bolden says she hopes remote learning, and new protections designed to keep in-person students safe, will be enough to entice them to stay the course.

3:41 p.m. - Activists condemn response from the city over weekend arrest

Members of Black, Young, and Educated said on Monday that the recent arrest of a Black Lives Matter protester was part of an effort by Pittsburgh police to silence demonstrators. And they said the tactics officers used to make the Saturday arrest belie statements by city officials that safety is their top priority in monitoring protests.

Matthew Cartier, 25, was arrested in Oakland Saturday for trying to block traffic from entering the route of a march that had been organized by BYE. The white tech engineer said armed plain clothes officers lured him to an unmarked van before booking him at the Allegheny County Jail, where he was charged with failure to disperse, disorderly conduct and obstructing a public passage.

Cartier’s arrest, which stoked outrage among those calling for greater police accountability, took place at BYE’s 11th Civil Saturday rally. Each of the events has drawn dozens to hundreds of protesters. But BYE outreach and communications coordinator AD Bagheera said the demonstrations have not led city officials to engage her and her peers’ in substantive conversations about policing issues.

Read more here. 

12:57 p.m. – Latest COVID numbers

Allegheny County reported 71 new COVID-19 cases Monday, the result of 944 tests taken between Aug. 11-16. Those infected range in age from 1 month to 97 years old. The county health department also reported two new deaths, which occurred Aug. 6 and 7. The two people who died were in their 80s and 90s.

Statewide, officials reported 384 new cases, bringing the total to 124,844. Monday’s number of tests does not include cases in Philadelphia due to a reporting delay. No new deaths were reported by state officials. State and county data does not always align due to differences in reporting methodology.  

12:45 a.m. - PA prepares to launch virus-tracing app next month

Pennsylvania plans to launch a coronavirus exposure-notification app in early September in an effort to more quickly break chains of transmission by using the new technology to notify people who may have been exposed. Officials told The Associated Press on Monday that the app was developed by NearForm Ltd, the Ireland-based company whose app there has been downloaded by more than one-fourth of that country’s residents. The app is based on smartphone technology developed by Apple and Google, and will undergo a pilot project next week, using state government employees and public health students, staff and faculty. It’s use will be limited to people 18 and over.  

9:42 a.m. - Mayor voices 'serious concerns' about protest arrest tactics

Pittsburgh’s mayor says he has “serious concerns” about the tactics used in the arrest of a protester during a march Saturday that drew condemnation from the American Civil Liberties Union and others. Pittsburgh Public Safety officials said they were trying to protect the public when plainclothes officers arrested a protester at about 5 p.m. Saturday in the city and placed the person in an unmarked, white van. Public Safety officials said the protester had repeatedly refused to work with police and was blocking intersections needed for people to get to hospitals and for students moving into the University of Pittsburgh.

Read more here

7:49 a.m. - Urban League sues over ballot signatures

Pennsylvania voters who send in their ballots by mail are required to sign their name on the envelope - and if that signature doesn't match the signature on file, the ballot is discarded. 

The Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh has joined a lawsuit that would force elections officials to notify voters if the two signatures don't match. 

Urban League President Esther Bush says the state should fix the problem before November.

“You’re signature changes over time,” she said. “The volunteers that we all love and appreciate, they’re not handwriting experts. And even a handwriting expert needs two or three versions of the signature to confirm it. And all we’re saying is, ‘would you please contact the person and let them know so they’re vote can count?’”

“And we’re asking the state of Pennsylvania just to make it mandatory for some method for the voter to confirm that that is their signature. That is not a significant ask in a democracy,” she said.

That's Esther Bush, President and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh—speaking with WESA’S Lucy Perkins.

Hear more from Bush on the topic today at 9 a.m. on The Confluence.