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WESA Daily Briefing: August 26, 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.



8:24 p.m. - First of weekly social justice campaign hosted by Black-led LGBTQ groups takes place Downtown 


Demonstrators filled the block in front of the downtown City-County Building Wednesday evening, the first of a series of planned weekly rallies in support of Black lives and the rights of LGBTQ people. The event was announced Monday by the groups Pgh LGBTQ Coalition and Trans YOUniting, after the organizations said they'd take over the planning of Pride 2021. 


Trans YOUniting's Dena Stanley reminded the crowd of the demonstration's demands: add more Black police officer to leadership positions; drop recent charges against Black activists; and be given a seat on the city's Citizen Police Review Board. She also announced demands that align with other area activists, including those by Dannielle Brown, the family of Romir Talley and the group Black, Young and Educated, which has been holding weekly protests on Saturdays. 





A number of speakers brought attention to other issues, including amending the law that prohibits transgender Pennsylvanians from legally changing their name if they have felony convictions. Chauntey Monique, who runs a new LGBTQ advocacy group called The Love Project, said she's working with the Reed Smith law office to address the issue. 


"Imagine what it's like for trans folks," Monique said, adding that, for example, it's dehumanizing for a female-identifying person to have to go by male pronouns and a birth name she no longer identifies with. 


Lorenzo Rulli, who was recently arrested outside of Mayor Bill Peduto's home in Point Breeze, criticized the size of the crowd, saying everyone in attendance should be questioning why their friends aren't at the rally. 


"Black queer folks are dying every single day," Rulli said. "What are we doing if we aren’t showing up?” 


The coalition plans to meet at the City-County Building each Wednesday evening "until [their] demands are met." 


6:00 p.m. - Coronavirus cases are declining in Allegheny County, but that could change with the return of students

Out of more than 1,000 tests, there were just 14 new cases of COVID-19 reported Wednesday in Allegheny County. That is the lowest daily case count in more than two months.

“My first question to our staff [Wednesday] morning was, ‘Is that a typo?’ It wasn't,” said Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the Allegheny County Health Department.

Wednesday’s report continues the trend of declining coronavirus infections in the county. But Bogen cautioned that as college students return to Pittsburgh, numbers could easily and quickly spike, as was seen in late June.

Read more here.

4:30 p.m. – Kids-for-cash judge loses bid for lighter prison sentence

A federal judge upheld the 28-year prison sentence of a disgraced Pennsylvania judge who locked up thousands of juvenile offenders while he was taking kickbacks from the owner and builder of for-profit detention centers, prosecutors announced Wednesday.

Mark Ciavarella, a former Luzerne County juvenile court judge, had been seeking a lighter sentence after three of the 12 counts of his 2011 conviction were overturned on appeal.

U.S. District Judge Christopher C. Conner ruled this week that Ciavarella, 70, was not legally entitled to a new sentencing hearing.

“To be abundantly clear, if we were authorized to reduce Ciavarella’s sentence, we would decline to do so,” wrote Conner, citing Ciavarella’s “abuse of public trust by an elected jurist and the resulting harm to vulnerable juvenile victims.” He said Ciavarella “refuses to acknowledge the scope of his remaining crimes” and stands convicted of taking bribes.

In what came to be known as the kids-for-cash scandal, Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conahan, shut down a county-run juvenile detention center and accepted $2.8 million in illegal payments from the builder and co-owner of two for-profit lockups. Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, pushed a zero-tolerance policy that guaranteed large numbers of kids would be sent to PA Child Care and its sister facility, Western PA Child Care.

Prosecutors said Ciavarella ordered children as young as 10 to detention, many of them first-time offenders convicted of petty theft and other minor crimes. The judge often ordered youths he had found delinquent to be immediately shackled, handcuffed and taken away without giving them a chance to say goodbye to their families.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out some 4,000 juvenile convictions after the scheme was uncovered.

The judges “betrayed their community and deserve the substantial punishments they received,” U.S. Attorney David J. Freed said in a written statement Wednesday.

Conahan, 68, the other judge in the scandal, was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison. He was recently released to home confinement with six years left on his sentence because of coronavirus concerns.

4:06 p.m. - Valmar Gardens residents must leave by Monday

Residents of a long-troubled apartment complex in Penn Hills will be evicted by Monday. Valmar Gardens has suffered for years from utility shutoffs, fires, and theft. But Allegheny County Judge Christine Ward has allowed residents to stay while she resolved a dispute over who owns the property. With that fight over, Ward ruled Wednesday that the occupants must leave. She said that while COVID-19 could make it hard to find new housing, Valmar Gardens is an unsafe place to live.

Read more here.

Credit An-Li Herring / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Anthony Straughter (center) protested his impending eviction from the Valmar Gardens apartment complex on Friday, August 21.

3:45 p.m. - Wolf's administration tries to ease any fears parents may have about sending their children back to school

The state’s Health, Human Services and Education secretaries each point to plans to contain coronavirus spread at schools, as well as child care services and after-school programs aimed at easing parental burdens during the pandemic.

Education Secretary Pedro Rivera says his department is recommending children attend school in-person whenever possible, but is giving parents the final say.

"Families need to be comfortable with how their children are being educated, and need to make the best decision for their families,” Rivera said, “and we stand ready to support and serve those communities as we continue through the start of the school year."

At least one school district in Perry and Dauphin counties has already had to shut down, due to positive cases of COVID-19.

According to the Health Department, any closure orders will be made at the district level for now.

Another 500 new cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed, bringing the statewide total to 130,536.

2:54 p.m. - North Hills nursing home has most COVID-19 cases in Allegheny County

A Ross Township facility is now the site to the largest COVID-19 nursing home outbreak in Allegheny County.  


State data show 110 residents and 48 employees have contracted the coronavirus at ManorCare’s North Hills facility, 21 of whom have died. ManorCare says another 60 have recovered.  


The Toledo, Ohio-based company owns 42 facilities in Pennsylvania, two-thirds of which have had COVID-19 outbreaks since the start of the pandemic.  


Up until this month the Allegheny County nursing home with the biggest COVID-19 outbreak was the county-owned John J. Kane Glen Hazel facility. This spring 90 Glen Hazel residents who were infected with the coronavirus; 22 died. 


Pennsylvania’s Department of Health provides infection control assistance to nursing homes dealing with coronavirus outbreaks. Both the department and ManorCare declined to say whether the North Hills nursing home had requested aid.    


“We try not to bring agency or part time employees who work elsewhere. This helps reduce the spread of the virus and keeps our processes in place. The majority of employees are recovered and able to work,” said ManorCare spokeswoman Kelly Kessler in an emailed statement. 


Kessler said that in most cases COVID-19 patients are treated inhouse, and that it has an infection control process to manage the virus.   

1:19 p.m. – Pennsylvania reports 501 new COVID cases

The new cases bring the statewide total to 130,536. In the last seven days, 156,132 tests have been administered in Pennsylvania. The state also reported 19 new deaths, bringing the total to 7,624.

Allegheny County reported 14 new cases, the result of 1,151 tests taken Aug. 21-15. Those infected range in age from 6 to 98 years old. The county Department of Health also reported 8 new deaths.  

9:54 a.m. - Dick's reports boost in sales due to at-home exercise equipment

Shares of Pittsburgh-based Dick's Sporting Goods rose nearly 16 percent in pre-market trading this morning.  The company is reporting a 194-percent jump in online sales during the second quarter of 2020.  Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Edward Stack said in a statement the gains are due to customer demand for at-home exercise equipment during the pandemic.  Stack also said the company is seeing slower sales of back-to-school supplies because of uncertainty over the timing of a return to school and fall team sports. 

8:01 a.m. - PA launching first statewide mobile testing unit

The state Health Department is launching the nation’s first statewide COVID-19 mobile testing unit.

CATE, which stands for Community-Accessible Testing & Education, is a 40-foot long RV that’ll focus on testing and education for historically underserved communities.

Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine says tests will be conducted on a first-come, first-serve basis, free of charge

“Bringing testing communities that otherwise would not receive it is a way that we continue the fight against this dangerous virus,” Levine said.

The department has planned more than 30 stops in churches, YMCAs or community centers around the commonwealth between now and the end of next month – including stops in York, Lancaster and Lebanon.

Test’s from the mobile unit will be sent to the state’s facility in Exton and should produce results within two days.