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WESA Daily Briefing: September 23, 2020

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Erin Keane Scott
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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.

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6:06 p.m. - Allegheny County will continue to enforce its size limits on gatherings, despite last week’s ruling in US Federal District Court

Judge William S. Stickman IV said an order by the Wolf Administration that limits the number of people at a gathering, created to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, was unconstitutional.  

However Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County’s chief executive, says local regulations, which cap indoor gatherings at 25 people and outdoor gatherings at 100, remain in place. 

“Enforcement by the health department and [County Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen] and her team will continue,” said Fitzgerald. 

Contact tracing data show that parties, as well as weddings and funerals, are commonly visited by county residents prior to testing positive for coronavirus.  

5:07 p.m. - Override of governor’s bill about sports attendance fails in state House

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives today failed to override Governor Tom Wolf’s veto of a bill that would allow schools to determine how many people can attend sporting events. The rule was put in place by the governor’s administration to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Representative Anita Kulik, a Democrat from Allegheny County, said parents should be allowed to attend games.

“We hold parents responsible for the wellbeing of their children,” Kulik said. “I wholeheartedly believe that parents have the inherent right to be where their children are.”

Wolf vetoed the bill on Monday, saying it does not promote public health or ensure a safe learning environment. 

4:04 p.m. - Esser's Plaza receives $100,000 in redevelopment funds

Esser’s Plaza on the South Side is getting a facelift. The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh today announced a $100,000 investment to improve the park at the corner of 12th and East Carson streets. The renovation includes new lighting, green areas, seating, paving and other updates. The project will be funded through the URA’s Neighborhood Initiatives Fund program.

3:25 p.m. - Art Commission unanimously votes to remove Christopher Columbus statue

Pittsburgh’s Art Commission voted 5-0 Wednesday to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus in Schenley Park. Commissioners cited Columbus’s enslavement of and brutality against indigenous people.

However, the vote might not be the final word. Mayor Bill Peduto continues to assert he has authority over the statue’s fate. And statue supporters—who say the statue honors Italian-American heritage—threatened legal action if the commission voted to take the statue down. 

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Credit Bill O'Driscoll / 90.5 WESA
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90.5 WESA

3:00 p.m. - More inmates accused of fraudulently seeking jobless checks

Eighteen inmates in Pennsylvania state prisons and two girlfriends of inmates on the outside are facing new charges in what authorities describe as a scheme to fraudulently obtain jobless benefits for ineligible prisoners.

The 20 sets of charges announced Wednesday by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro come a month after prosecutors disclosed the investigation into illegal applications for unemployment compensation benefits that were temporarily enhanced because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shapiro says the investigation isn't over. He says that while some never received the money, the 20 defendants taken together collected about $300,000.

Read more here. 

2:41 p.m. - Allegheny Health Network unveils fourth neighborhood hospital

The 10-bed facility in Harmar Township is part of the health system’s strategy to attract patients by regionalizing medical service to make them more convenient.

Surgeries are not performed at neighborhood hospitals. But they do provide emergency care and diagnostic services.  AHN says the Harmar facility will open to patients in the coming weeks, pending state approval.  

2:24 p.m. - Officer accused of stealing from 2 police departments  

A police officer stands accused of stealing from two western Pennsylvania police departments where he worked.

Joseph Lynn, 34, of McKeesport, is charged with theft, evidence tampering, lying to authorities, obstructing the administration of law and misapplication of entrusted property. It wasn't known Wednesday if he's retained an attorney.

Lynn is accused of multiple thefts from the Blawnox police force, where he currently serves, and the North Braddock police department, where he previously worked.

According to court documents, state police were investigating reports that cash was missing from the North Braddock department's evidence room when investigators found evidence that Lynn had covered the surveillance cameras at the station for unknown reasons.

Further investigation found that Lynn was responsible for another set of unrelated “theft incidents” while on duty in both departments, according to the documents. Further details on the incidents were not disclosed.

Blawnox police declined comment on Lynn's employment status.

1:25 p.m. – Latest COVID numbers

The Allegheny County Department of Health reported 46 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, the result of 733 tests taken Sept. 18-21. Those infected range in age from 13 to 90 years old. Three new deaths were reported. The deaths occurred Sept. 10-14 and those who died were in their 50s, 80s and 90s. Two of the deaths were associated with long-term care facilities.  

9:40 a.m. - Wolf administration to appeal decision on crowd limits

The Wolf administration is planning to appeal after a federal judge in Pittsburgh decided yesterday not to stay his own ruling that state limits on crowd sizes at gatherings are unconstitutional. 

U.S. District Judge William Stickman said the Wolf administration failed to show “imminent and irreparable harm will occur” if the state can’t limit crowds at indoor and outdoor venues. 

The judge said the limits are violations of citizens' constitutional rights to assemble. Last week, Stickman ruled that Wolf's stay-at-home orders and temporary business closures during the first weeks of the pandemic were also unconstitutional. 

Wolf has since eased many of the restrictions. Stickman was appointed to the bench by President Trump.   

7:54 a.m. - Trump boasts that he gets to appoint 'three in one term' to Supreme Court

A crowd of Trump supporters gathered in western Pennsylvania to see the president on his second campaign stop in the region this month.

Just days after supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, President Trump hyped the crowd by talking about his track record with supreme court appointments.

“Two great supreme court judges and now we’re going to get a third,” he said. “Can you imagine, can you imagine our enemies? Three in one term. So many presidents they just don't have a chance. And it’s so important.”

Democrat Joe Biden has said voters should decide who gets to pick the next Supreme Court justice. And says Trump focusing on the court is a distraction from other challenges the country’s facing, like the pandemic.

Trump said on Tuesday that millions of lives had been saved from what he called quote “the plague” that China released. More than 200,000 Americans died from the coronavirus. 

 7:16 a.m. - PA Senate OKs bill to further loosen restrictions on bars and restaurants

Legislation to loosen Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic restrictions on Pennsylvania’s bars and restaurants easily passed the state Senate. The Republican-controlled Senate voted 43 to 6 for a bill Tuesday that ends the requirement that customers buy food in order to purchase alcohol and permits patrons to be served drinks at the bar. It also permits taverns and restaurants to operate at 50% capacity, or more if they can meet state and federal social distancing standards or erect appropriate barriers. The bill goes to the House vote before it can go to Wolf, a Democrat. Wolf's office says he'll veto the proposal if it reaches him in its current form.