LIVE BLOG: Coronavirus In Pittsburgh, May 25-31

May 25, 2020

News on the coronavirus pandemic, including the responses of local governments, health departments, hospital systems, schools and other institutions. For information from the previous week, click here

Editor's note: This post will be frequently updated with the latest news.

 

Sunday, May 31, 2020

12:13 p.m. — 14 new COVID-19 cases in Allegheny County; 511 more in PA

The state has now recorded nearly 72,000 positive cases, as well as a total of 5,555 deaths. Allegheny County, meanwhile, has a total of 1,911 positive cases and a total of 151 deaths—that's the fourth straight day the county did not record any new deaths.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

1:03 p.m. — County and state report updated COVID-19 numbers

Allegheny County reported an additional 27 positive cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, bringing the total to 1,897 cases. No new deaths were reported.

Pennsylvania, meanwhile, reported 680 new cases, bringing the state's total to 71,415. Seventy-three new deaths were attributed to COVID-19; the state has now recorded 5,537 deaths. 

9:45 a.m. — Wolf: Pa. schools will reopen in the fall

Gov. Tom Wolf is confident that Pennsylvania students will return to their schools this fall.

“No question,” Wolf said during a news conference Friday at the headquarters of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency in Dauphin County.

“Now, schools will look different. I mean, you’ll probably have more online learning. And maybe less classroom learning,” Wolf said. “There might be fewer students in each classroom on average — that kind of thing.”

The governor ordered all schools in the state to close in March in response to the then-expanding coronavirus epidemic. The order was initially for 10 business days, but he later extended the closure order — first indefinitely and then for rest of the school year.

The governor said the Pennsylvania Department of Education plans to issue guidance to schools next week.

Read more.

Friday, May 29, 2020

6:15 p.m. - Peduto reacts to green phase designation

At an afternoon press conference, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said city officials will evaluate what further reopening means for any restrictions that have been imposed at the local level.

"That does not mean that they will be changed, [but] that they will be evaluated," Peduto said.

The green phase means that restaurants and bars can open at 50 percent capacity, and gyms, salons and theaters can also open at that level. Under the phase, gatherings of 250 people or more are still prohibited, and Gov. Tom Wolf stressed the need to stay away from crowds and wear masks to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto addresses the media in the portico of the City County Building Downtown on Friday, May 29, 2020.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

4:41 p.m. - U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services addresses COVID-19 outbreak at Brighton Rehab

Secretary Alex Azar visitied the Beaver County facility this afternoon. The nursing home is the site of the worst outbreak in Pennsylvania.  Azar says he’s concerned about how COVID-19 mitigation efforts have impacted public health. For example, non-emergency care was postponed to allow medical systems to prepare for possible surges of patients.

 

"There's not an excuse for infections spreading like wildfire throughout a nursing home," Azar said. "That suggests that you're not engaged in the basic types of infection control, isolation of patients and appropriate use of personal protective equipment."

Azar said a federal investigation of a nursing home is rare, and questions whether the state of Pennsylvania provided paper oversight of Brighton even before the pandemic.

Many experts say lifting physical distancing mandates too soon could result in a dangerous spike of COVID-19 illness.  

4:23 p.m. — County Exec. Rich Fitzgerald ready to go green

 

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is hailing the county’s June 5th move to the “green” phase, but cautions the virus is still out there. "You can never really declare victory, you can only go day by day and hope people continue to wear their masks, continue to stay physical distanced, and stay away from large gatherings indoors,” he said Friday. Fitzgerald predicted businesses will enforce mask requirements due to public pressure and a desire to avoid another outbreak.

 

4:08 p.m. - This week's Pittsburgh Explainer: Summer scotch, cookout jams & red-eyed vireos

The coronavirus shutdown began just as winter turned into spring. Since then, people have been learning new skills, taking on home projects and figuring out how to navigate life in these strange times.

Now it's nearly summer, and this week Pittsburgh Explainer met up with three professionals in their fields who have recommendations for summer cocktails, songs and spotting plants and animals in local parks. 

Listen to the most recent episode of our weekly podcast.

2:37 p.m. — Much of southwestern PA will move to green phase on Friday, June 5

In the green phase, overnight camps and organized youth sports can operate, while restaurants and bars, salons and barber shops, gyms, theaters, malls and casinos can all open at 50% capacity. Other businesses serving the public in a building or defined area can only operate at up to 75% capacity.

People will still be asked to wear masks in public and businesses must enforce social distancing requirements, while concerts, sporting events and other large gatherings are restricted to under 250 people.

Read more.

2:07 p.m. - Allegheny County to go green next week

Ahead of the transition, we want to know what your questions are. Share them here:

12:55 p.m. - Sen. Bob Casey says he had COVID-19

Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D) says he experienced mild symptoms earlier in the spring and plans to donate plasma in order to help with research into the coronavirus. 

12:15 p.m. – Pennsylvania reports 693 new COVID cases

The total number of cases is now at 70,735. That number includes 17,900 cases among nursing and personal care home staff and residents. Approximately 5,280 of the total cases are among health care workers.

The state Department of Health also reported 91 new deaths, bringing the total to 5,464.

11:05 a.m. – Allegheny County again reports no new COVID deaths

The total number of deaths remains at 151. The COVID-19 death toll has increased by one since Saturday. The median age of those who have died is 85.

The total number of positive cases increased by 19 to 1,870. That total includes 1,758 confirmed cases and 112 probable cases.

10:27 a.m. - Governor to lift more pandemic restrictions

Gov. Tom Wolf plans to announce that he'll lift more pandemic restrictions in certain counties in Pennsylvania, while 26 more counties woke up to fewer restrictions. That leaves nearly 6 million people in hard-hit southeastern Pennsylvania under Wolf’s tightest orders, including a stay-at-home order that is part of Wolf’s so-called “red” phase in the governor’s stoplight-colored three-phase reopening plan. Wolf will announce Friday that more counties can move to the green phase, the phase with the fewest restrictions. Starting Friday, eight more counties — Dauphin, Franklin, Huntingdon, Lebanon, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike and Schuylkill — are moving to the yellow phase. Also Friday, 18 mostly rural counties across northern Pennsylvania are moving to the green phase.

8:38 a.m. - UPMC rakes in $228 million in coronavirus stimulus cash

The federal CARES Act stimulus has given more than two billion dollars to health systems, universities and others in Pennsylvania. 

Transforming Health’s Brett Sholtis reports, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center topped the list for bailouts with $228 million – nearly twice the federal bailout of its closest competitors Penn Medicine and Jefferson Health, despite that many of its hospitals are in parts of the state far from the worst outbreaks of the coronavirus.

A company spokeswoman says that’s simply the result of a federal formula that looks at revenue and medical claims. 

But some critics note, it does not take into account a company’s finances or how badly it was damaged by the pandemic.

Read more here

7:55 a.m. - Unemployment backlog persists

Pennsylvania state officials say they’re making progress, but acknowledge more needs to be done to whittle down an unemployment compensation claims backlog that has persisted for more than two months. Jammed phone lines, balky computer systems and unreturned emails remain an issue despite a near doubling of staff at the agency that processes claims. More than 2.3 million people in Pennsylvania, including self-employed and gig workers, have filed for unemployment since mid-March. Meanwhile, state officials announced that all state park beaches and most pools will be open next month.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

6:14 p.m. - Peduto speaks with UN about how cities can recover

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto spoke with the United Nations in a session on how to combine climate action and economic recovery amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Peduto talked about Pittsburgh's legacy of adjusting its economy during crises.

"It's no longer a 19th century, single bottom line of 'how many widgets you can make and how much you can charge for them, and what your profits will be,'" Peduto said, "It's 'how will your policies affect the people that you will represent?'"

Peduto also said that local mayors are still in the Paris Climate Agreement and are finding ways to use climate-friendly manufacturing.

5:34 p.m. - Schools relieved that proposed budget doesn't include education cuts, for now

It appears Pennsylvania’s public schools will get at least a one-year reprieve from any large-scale, state budget cuts.

In a budget bill that squeaked through the State House on Tuesday, lawmakers decided to hold all major education spending even for the next twelve months. If that bill is ultimately signed, money for Pre-K, K-12, and state universities will be identical to what it was this year.

That’s notable because most of the state budget will be revisited five months from now — after the election and after state officials have a better sense of the fiscal damage wrought by the coronavirus.

But school boards, child care operators, and university presidents won’t have to worry about substantial state cuts until at least 2021.

Mike Straub, spokesman for the House Republican Caucus, said schools needed to know where they stood financially before the academic year began. The prospect of a cut in five months — during the middle of the school year — is something parents, teachers, and students “shouldn’t be faced with right now,” he said.

Republicans who control the State Senate expect the proposal to clear their chamber, as well.

“We wanted to be sure to send the message that education was important,” said Jennifer Kocher, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre). “We wanted to provide a little bit of stability.”

For education advocates, the news comes as a relief.

Read more about the budget.

5:09 p.m. - Pennsylvanians who have experienced COVID-19-related income loss can apply for state assistance to help pay utilities

The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program—or LIHEAP—usually covers only the winter months. But Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller says the program has been extended for families who need help now:

“These benefits will be paid directly to utility companies or fuel providers with a few exceptions to help qualifying families offset costs for home utilities,” Miller said.

Residents can see if they meet those qualifications and apply for LIHEAP assistance here.

3:54 p.m. - Allegheny County libraries to offer curbside pick-up and returns

 

The Allegheny County Library Association and its 46 member libraries will begin the curbside service in mid-June, according to a release. 

 

The physical libraries remain closed to the public. Due dates for items currently checked out have been extended until July 1. ACLA recommends people check with their local libraries to arrange for pick-ups or returns. A virtual summer reading program will begin June 15.

 

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is still working on its own reopening plan.

3:15 p.m. - Mobile coronavirus testing to be in Duquesne on Friday

Allegheny Health Network’s mobile coronavirus testing unit was established to increase testing access in communities that lack medical resources. An appointment is required, but a physician’s order is not. Patients should either have symptoms of COVID-19 or believe they have been exposed to the virus due to contact with someone who has been diagnosed with the illness. The unit will be outside the elementary school on Kennedy Avenue from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

2:38 p.m. - DEP faces flat funding

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection was hoping to welcome 25 new staff members in the next fiscal year. 

Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed budget included $5 million to hire more staff at DEP and at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.  

But since the coronavirus prompted statewide business shutdowns and ate into expected revenue, lawmakers are planning to maintain current funding levels for all agencies for at least the first five months of the new fiscal year, which begins in July. 

The short-term spending plan passed the House Tuesday 103-99, and is now in the Senate.

Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware), minority chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, urged a no vote on the measure. 

DEP has been “decimated” over the years by cuts, he said, adding even Wolf’s proposed increases were inadequate. 

Read more about the DEP's situation.

2:13 p.m. - Flood of mail-in ballots spurs fight over deadline

Some county and state officials are warning that a flood of mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania will create problems in Tuesday’s primary election that must be fixed before November’s presidential election. For one, they are warning that there will be no way to produce timely election results in November unless the law changes. Even in Tuesday’s relatively low turnout primary election, election-night results might be unlikely in closely contested races. Of more immediate concern is the question of whether voters can mail their ballots back to county election offices in time to be counted in Tuesday's primary election.

12:48 p.m. – Pennsylvania reports 625 new COVID cases

The total number of cases is now at 70,042. That number includes 17,721 cases among nursing and personal care home staff and residents. Another 5,279 of the total cases are among health care workers.

The state Department of Health also reported 108 new deaths, bringing the total to 5,373.

11:53 a.m. – Allegheny County reports no new deaths

The total number of deaths remains at 151. The COVID-19 death toll has increase by one since Saturday. The median age of those who have died is 85.

The total number of positive cases increased by 23 to 1,851. That total includes 1,742 confirmed cases and 109 probable cases.

10:22 a.m. - Sports may resume in Pennsylvania

Professional sports can resume in Pennsylvania where the governor’s stay-at-home order to stem the spread of the coronavirus is no longer in force, but without spectators. Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration said Wednesday that teams and competitors will be allowed to practice or play in counties where Wolf’s yellow or green designation applies in his stoplight-colored three-phase reopening plan. To resume, a team or a league must develop a coronavirus safety plan that has been approved by Wolf’s state Department of Health and it must include testing or screening and monitoring of all “on-venue” players and personnel. Organized youth sports can begin or resume in areas in the green phase. 

8:13 a.m. - PA Dems say GOP hid member's positive COVID test

The Washington Post reports, "Democratic state legislators in Pennsylvania accused their Republican counterparts Wednesday of keeping a GOP lawmaker’s positive novel coronavirus diagnosis under wraps for days, arguing that the lack of transparency may have increased their risk of contracting the potentially deadly infection."

7:37 a.m. - Wolf OKs outdoor dining

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

Counties in the “yellow” phase of reopening, which includes Allegheny, may offer outdoor dining starting June 5, Wolf announced Wednesday. Restaurants must adhere to strict guidelines, including no bar seating, no condiments on tables, no reusable menus or refills.

Counties in the “green” phase will be able to offer dine-in service, as long as customers can maintain social distancing of 6 feet and restaurants follow occupancy limits.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

5:41 p.m. - Child care advocates say providers will need a lot more money to stay afloat

Advocates told state Senate and House policy committee members Wednesday that as many as one third of providers are at risk of permanently closing because of the pandemic.

Advocates say without a substantial investment of state and federal funds – upwards of $140 million– centers will close and parents in need of child care will have a hard time getting back to work.

Cara Ciminillo is the director of Pittsburgh-based advocacy group Trying Together. She says lost tuition has dealt a financial blow to centers that were already operating on slim margins.

“These financial losses paired with what is likely to be slow demand and uncertainty with respect the pandemic continues could collapse the entire sector,” Ciminillo said.

The state has received $106 million from the federal CARES Act for child care and about half will be issued to providers in the state’s yellow phase. Advocates asked for the rest of that money now because providers need to buy cleaning supplies and hire more staff to lower teacher to staff ratios.

Read more about the needed funding.

5:13 p.m. - Voters can drop off ballots Downtown if they're worried about deadlines

Voters can drop off their ballots in person at the County Office Building at 542 Forbes Avenue Downtown. The election office is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. this week, and a station in the lobby will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. this weekend. Mail-in ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on election night, June 2.

5:01 p.m. - Allegheny County settles some claims over handling of coronavirus at jail

The settlement requires the jail to house new inmates separately for two weeks and put vulnerable people in their own cells. Three inmates filed the case in federal court in April. They accused the jail of providing inadequate medical treatment and cleaning procedures and of crowding inmates together unnecessarily. The plaintiffs also asked for additional inmates to be released, but the agreement doesn't include that step.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

4:27 p.m. - Biden praises Wolf during virtual call

Joe Biden offered high praise for Pennsylvania’s chief executive on Wednesday, saying Gov. Tom Wolf’s phased plan for easing coronavirus restrictions is “the kind of thing we should be doing nationally.”

Biden, the former vice president and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, received Wolf’s official endorsement on Wednesday and joined the governor for a virtual campaign event.

“Tom, you’ve done one hell of a job,” said Biden, speaking from his home in Wilmington, Del.

Pennsylvania is expected to be a key battleground state in the November election. Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by fewer than 45,000 votes in 2016, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to carry the state since 1988. Two years later, Wolf won reelection by a margin of more than 855,000 votes.

Read more about their conversation.

3:33 p.m. - Advocates say emergency efforts to release people from state prisons are moving too slowly

Over the last six weeks, Pennsylvania state prisons have temporarily released 153 people under an emergency program designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 behind bars — a total even prison officials say is lower than expected.

The Wolf administration said in April that up to 1,800 people could be eligible for release from state prisons, per the governor’s order.

The correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia.
Credit Emma Lee / WHYY

The pool is now closer to 1,200 after state and local officials involved in the process discovered that hundreds of people in prison did not meet the program’s criteria. Some eligible people opted to be released on parole when they reached their minimum sentences to avoid the possibility of having to return to prison whenever Gov. Tom Wolf’s order is lifted.

 “It ended up being more complicated,” said Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel. The Temporary Program to Reprieve Sentences of Incarceration — created after state lawmakers were unable to pass a bill to release people from state prisons during the pandemic — applies to nonviolent offenders who would be eligible for release within the next nine months, or who are considered vulnerable for infection and are within a year of their release date. That includes incarcerated people who are 65 and older, have an autoimmune disorder or have another chronic medical condition, such as heart disease or diabetes. Read more about the correctional institutions. 

2:49 p.m. – Venture Outdoors plans to relaunch activities

The outdoor activities organization said it will open Kayak Pittsburgh in North Park by June 11. In a release, Venture Outdoors said it will also operate with a new set of safety procedures and protocols.

Starting May 30, the organization plans to relaunch outdoor experiences, including free stroll programs for the month of June.

 

The TriAnglers downtown fishing program will also begin in June.

12:25 p.m. – Pennsylvania COVID cases increase by 780

The total number of cases is now at 69,417. That total includes 17,518 cases among nursing and personal care home staff and residents. Another 5,216 of the total cases are among health care workers.

The state Department of Health also reported 113 new deaths, bringing the total to 5,265.

11:53 a.m. – Jewish Community Center to open early childhood development centers June 1

The organization says it “is excited to focus our attention on reopening to serve the community both virtually and in person in a staged and prudent manner,” now that Allegheny County is in the yellow phase. The JCC says it plans to follow the guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as consult with the Pittsburgh Regional Health Initiative.

The JCC also says it is “increasingly likely” that day camp programs will also be able to operate this summer, but awaits further instruction from officials.

Additionally, the organization is “currently making accommodations to its facilities to support physical distancing for workouts, swimming, and classes” for when the county enters the “green” phase of reopening.

11:24 a.m. – Allegheny County reports one COVID death

The total number of deaths is now 151, an increase of one since Saturday. The median age of those who have died is 85.

The total number of positive cases increased by 12 to 1,828. That total includes 1,720 confirmed cases and 108 probable cases.

8:13 a.m. - It's OK to be confused, the pandemic guidelines keep changing

Remember when public health officials told people not to wear face masks? Now, they're mandatory at most public spaces and businesses. Sarah Boden talks with health experts who say yes, it's confusing, but it's important to try "to be in it together."

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

6:14 p.m. - NHL moves ahead with 24-team playoff format if play resumes, Pittsburgh could host

The NHL will abandon the rest of the regular season and go straight into the playoffs with 24 teams instead of 16 if it is able to resume play.

The decision, announced Tuedsay by Commissioner Gary Bettman, is not a guarantee that games are coming back. The NHL and the NHL Players' Association must still figure out health and safety protocols and solve other issues, including where to play.

Still, ironing out the format represents significant progress since global sports were largely shut down in March as the coronavirus outbreak turned into a pandemic. Bettman has said the goal has always been to play again and award the Stanley Cup, but details remain uncertain.

Bettman said voluntary workouts could begin in early June and formal camps aren't expected to begin before July 1. Those camps are expected to last roughly three weeks as players return to the ice for the first time in months.

“Any plan for the resumption of play by definition cannot be perfect,” Bettman said. “But we believe we have constructed an overall plan that includes all teams that as a practical matter might have had a chance of qualifying for the playoffs when the season was paused, and this plan will produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion who will have run the postseason gauntlet that is unique to the NHL.”

Earlier this week, the league and NHLPA issued extensive protocols once players are allowed to return to their facilities. They include a maximum of six players on the ice at a time, no contact and no coaches for voluntary workouts.

Instead of limiting the Cup chase to the usual 16 teams that qualify for the playoffs, the league and players agreed to expand the field to 24 of its 31 teams because of the unusual circumstances.

That means the likes of the Montreal Canadiens are still alive despite being nine points out of a playoff spot when hockey was halted March 12. But not all teams will have the same path to hockey's storied trophy.

The top four teams in each conference ranked by points percentage — Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West — will play separate round-robin tournaments to determine seeding.

 

Pittsburgh Penguins fans wait for the start of the Penguins' NHL hockey Stanley Cup victory parade in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, June 14, 2017.
Credit Gene J. Puskar / AP

The remaining 16 teams will be seeded by conference, setting up best-of-five series in the East of No. 5 Pittsburgh vs. No. 12 Montreal, No. 6 Carolina vs. No. 11 New York Rangers, No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida and No. 8 Toronto vs. No. 9 Columbus. In the West, it would be No. 5 Edmonton vs. No. 12 Chicago, No. 6 Nashville vs. No. 11 Arizona, No. 7 Vancouver vs. No. 10 Minnesota and No. 8 Calgary vs. No. 9 Winnipeg.

Games are expected to be played in two hub cities and Bettman said and 10 are in the running: Chicago, Columbus, Ohio, Dallas, Las Veas, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis/St. Paul in the U.S. and Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver in Canada.

While there are still details to work out, including whether the first two rounds are best of five or seven, Bettman said he expects the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final to be played in full in one of the two hub cities.

6:06 p.m. - SNAP participation rates up in Pennsylvania

More than 100,000 Pennsylvanians began receiving SNAP benefits last month, doubling the largest one-month increase in the state’s 16 years of available data. Allegheny County represents about 10 percent of those new additions. 

Through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is providing $2.14 per meal per person each month. 

“The maximum amount is intended to be an entire monthly food budget for a family, which is inadequate,” says Ann Sanders of the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Just Harvest

And although businesses are slowly reopening, Sanders says she thinks more people will likely sign up in the coming months.

“I expect that this is actually the tip of the iceberg. Usually SNAP follows unemployment, and there’s a little bit of a delay behind it, so I would expect next month that when we see May’s participation numbers, they will be even higher.”

More than 1.7 million Pennsylvanians  have applied for unemployment since Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the shutdown of non-essential businesses mid-March. The state Department of Labor and Industry shows Pennsylvania’s jobless rate jumped to 15.1 percent in April.

Starting in June, SNAP recipients will be able to order their food online, but the same restrictions apply:  the assistance cannot be used for cleaning, hygiene or baby products, nor for delivery fees. 

5:20 p.m. - A Pennsylvania company switched from sewing football jerseys to face masks. Workers walked off, saying the plan was unsafe

At first, Scott Hoffman thought the employee was half-joking.

It was mid-March, before the coronavirus had shut down the entire state of Pennsylvania, but Hoffman and the other workers at All Sports America could sense what was coming.

They wondered: What would happen to the 20 or so workers if the small sewing plant in Northumberland County had to shut its doors?

The worker’s idea was simple: All Sports America should start producing face masks instead of football jerseys and T-shirts. That way, the plant could stay open, an essential business helping respond to the pandemic.

Hoffman forwarded the employee’s idea up the chain, sending it to one of the company’s owners.

But it was the next day – March 19 — that the mask idea became critical to the company’s plan to stay open: Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all “non-life sustaining” businesses across the state to close their doors. Businesses could apply for a waiver to remain open, but otherwise would have to lock their doors until the coronavirus threat had passed.

Read more about the company's experience.

 

Richard Rock, president of All Sports America, shows one of the company’s new masks inside the company’s sewing room on April 29, 2020.
Credit Ed Mahon / PA Post

4:16 p.m. - Health experts report record number of people with mental health concerns

Pennsylvania’s already strained mental health services face unprecedented demand, as the threat of budget cuts looms.

Beaver County Mental Health and Intellectual Disabilities Administrator Gerard Mike said he has learned to stretch a dollar, as his agency seeks to help 13,000 people who receive services through the program.

Counties across the state have found ways to survive a 10 percent cut in state funding in 2012, and years of flat funding ever since.

Now, Mike fears budget cuts are coming at exactly the time when demand for services is increasing as people grapple with job losses and the death of loved ones.

“We see them now with the trauma associated with this crisis. The need for our services is only going to increase.”

State lawmakers face a June 30th deadline to pass a new spending plan.

They are considering a five-month budget to deal with the immediate fallout from the pandemic, rather than implementing the typical year-long plan.

3:43 p.m. - PWSA construction projects resume normal schedule

 The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority will continue planned construction projects now that Allegheny County has moved into the yellow phase of reopening, according to a release from the agency.  

Projects include lead service line replacement throughout PWSA's service area, as well as restoration of the Highland Park Reservoir wall. It will also complete restoration of the Saw Mill Run Stream in Overbrook and replace 550 feet of aging water main along Greystone Drive in Highland Park.

3:31 p.m. - Natural gas production hits two-year low

Energy companies in Pennsylvania saw their growth rate for natural gas production hit a two-year low, according to a recent report from the state's Independent Fiscal Office.

Data collected by the state Department of Environmental Protection shows shale gas production grew just under 7 percent in the first three months of this year compared to the same period in 2019.

Total production was down slightly from the end of last year-the first time that's happened in over three years.

The Independent Fiscal Office says the slowdown is likely the result of persistently low prices for natural gas and the early impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Growth has been declining since it hit a peak in mid-2018.

2:49 p.m. - Credit ratings agency Moody's approves of the state's upgraded voting machines

The analysis from Moody's Investors Services notes the increased electoral integrity and critical cybersecurity backstops afforded by the new machines. They have paper trails, which means results can be audited down to individual ballots. The upgrade costs about $150 million, to be split between counties and the state, which is issuing $90 million in bonds to cover its share.

Older devices didn't always allow for that capability.

Credit Matt Rourke / AP

Another factor in the 10 year bonds' AAA stable rating is the assumption that more federal coronavirus funding will cover additional election costs taken on due to the pandemic. 

The Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority board voted to allow the debt issuance to go foward at its last meeting in February, but hasn't met since. It's expected to convene in mid-June, after the primary.

2:30 p.m. - As virus ebbs, Wolf touts increased testing, contact tracing

With 18 Pennsylvania counties preparing to move to the least restrictive phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan, the number of new virus infections continues to fall statewide and officials say they’re making strides in their ability to manage flareups. Wolf says virus testing has increased from 50,000 in the last week of April to nearly 80,000 last week. He says a new contact tracing program is ramping up as well. The Pennsylvania Department of Health, meanwhile, is reporting 13 additional deaths linked to COVID-19, raising the statewide total to 5,152. State health officials also reported that 451 more people have tested positive for the new coronavirus.

1:01 p.m. - PA preps budget without new taxes as lawmakers wait to see effects of shutdowns

Pennsylvania state government is preparing a temporary no-new-taxes budget plan that maintains current spending levels while budget makers watch to see how badly tax collections are damaged by coronavirus-related shutdowns and whether the federal government sends more aid to states. Officials in the House and Senate said Tuesday they expected votes on a roughly $25 billion package this week. The spending legislation is expected to be accompanied by legislation that distributes approximately $2 billion in federal coronavirus emergency aid. The $25 billion package would carry full-year money for public schools. But most operating budget lines would be funded through Nov. 30, Senate and House officials said.

12:17 p.m. – State Dept. of Health reports 451 new COVID cases

The total statewide is now 68,637. Of those cases, 17,362 are among nursing and personal care home patients and staff. Another 5,159 cases are among health care workers

The state also reported 13 new deaths, bringing the total across Pennsylvania to 5,152.

11:11 a.m. – Allegheny County COVID reports no new deaths

The number of countywide deaths remains at 150. The total number of positive cases increased by 11, bringing the total to 1,816. That number includes 1,709 confirmed cases and 107 probable cases.

8:02 a.m. - PA health facilities face thousands in fines

Pennsylvania health officials say civil penalties totaling more than $93,000 have been assessed against nursing facilities in the state. They come amid hundreds of complaint investigations during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health says nursing home surveyors have conducted more than 1,400 nursing home inspections since the beginning of February.

According to department figures, about two-thirds of COVID-19 deaths in the state have occurred in residents of nursing or personal care facilities.

Monday, May 25, 2020

4:55 p.m. - Pa. launches program to reimburse meat processors that bought PPE

The initiative is available for processors that purchased personal protective equipment for their workers during the coronavirus pandemic. Under the program, a company can apply for $16,000 through the Pennsylvania Center for Poultry and Livestock Excellence. A total of $280,000 is available.

Companies can be reimbursed for PPE -- which includes face masks, gloves and hand sanitizer -- purchased between Feb. 19 and May 18. Meat processors can also be reimbursed for bilingual training materials and signage, as well as for prevention and surveillance tools, such as thermometers.

3:50 p.m. - Artists share window views on new Instagram series

Tony Buba is among Pittsburgh’s most acclaimed independent filmmakers. And like so many people these days, he’s admittedly obsessed by the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s a deadly disease, after all, especially for older folks and those with underlying health conditions. And Buba imagines that his lungs are compromised after a lifetime spent in Braddock and North Braddock – the same stretch of the industrial Mon Valley he’s spent his storied career chronicling in films that have screened around the world.

Buba was the Miller Institute of Contemporary Art’s pick to lead off Looking Out, its new series of photographic and video art based on what artists see through their windows while sheltering in place during the pandemic.

The gallery, based at Carnegie Mellon University, posts a new work each weekday morning on its Instagram page. The series started May 19 with Buba’s “COVID-19 an obsession – Part I,” shot through the front window of his home on a quiet wooded road. The 8.5 minutes of footage centers on a bird feeder, and the lead cast members include a Baltimore oriole.

Read more about the project.

2:20 p.m. - Charitable walks, runs adapt to crowd limits

The coronavirus pandemic has forced charities or nonprofit groups to cancel or postpone an untold number of walks and runs that raise money for everything from Alzheimer's to Parkinson's.

There is, however, room to evolve.

When the Arthritis Foundation’s Pittsburgh chapter scrubbed its annual “Walk to Cure Arthritis Event” scheduled for May 16, it gave the 242 registrants a certain freedom.

“People could kind of do what they wanted at their own pace and at their convenience,” said Linda Glace, development manager for the foundation’s western Pennsylvania and West Virginia chapter.

Such a move could potentially allow organizations to expand their footprint in the future because it would remove geographical barriers.

Read more about how organizations are changing their operations.

2:09 p.m. - City's Learn and Earn Summer Youth Employment Program will continue, with modifications

The program hires students between ages 14 and 21 to work in various city departments, including public works, graphic design and advertising.

Janet Manuel oversees the program. She says the city is offering online opportunities because of the coronavirus -- and outside donors can help purchase equipment for those who need online access. She says job opportunities can make a huge difference.

“We recognize and realize that there are a lot of youth who participate in this summer activity,” Manuel said. “The income that they earn, they actually utilize that to help their family.”

The workers earn $7.25 an hour. Manuel says the city has received over 1,100 applications since March. Jobs are offered in areas ranging from parks and public works to graphic design, marketing and culinary arts. Applications are still available here.

12:35 p.m. - PPS families will receive SNAP benefits

Pittsburgh Public School said in a release that all families will receive supplemental funds, called Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer, to help pay for meals missed while out of school. The benefits will be issued for 65 days to account for March to June and each student will receive $375.50.

Families who already receive SNAP benefits will have the money loaded directly onto their EBT cards.

The district has so far distributed 120,964 "Grab and Go" meals, the released said.  

12:14 p.m. - State reports 473 additional cases, bringing total to 68,187

The Pennsylvania Department of Health said there were 15 deaths, bringing the total statewide to 5,139. 

11:30 a.m. - Allegheny County reports 1,805 total cases

The Allegheny County Health Department said 28 additional cases had been confirmed Monday. The number includes 1,697 confirmed and 108 probable cases. There were no new deaths reported.

10:39 a.m. - State Supreme Court live-streams arguments, but news outlets can't broadcast them

The state Supreme Court live-streamed oral arguments for the first time last week. But while you can find the recordings on YouTube, you won't hear them broadcast by news outlets. That's because justices still prohibit the media from airing audio or video tape of their proceedings. 

Duquesne University Law Professor Bruce Ledewitz says the court probably won't change that policy anytime soon.

Judiciary staff say the court seeks to follow existing rules even in unprecedented times. Ledewitz says the court probably put the arguments online because the state constitution requires them to be open to the public.

“They’re going to reconsider a whole new policy, not catch as catch can because we happen to be online," Ledewitz said.

Ledewitz says courts worry that televised arguments will lead jurists to play to the public outside the courtroom, instead of focusing on the law. But he says amid COVID-19 the justices had little choice but to stream the arguments, because the state constitution likely requires the sessions to be open to the public. 

9:20 a.m. - Many houses of worship delay opening

State Health Secretary Rachel Levine has stressed the importance of taking it slow when reopening businesses in Pennsylvania. “Yellow means caution,” she said at a recent press conference. That sentiment has been echoed by Pittsburgh’s religious groups grappling with whether or not to reopen their doors to worshippers.

Credit Frank Franklin II / AP

Churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and other houses of worship can reopen under the yellow phase, but they must limit gatherings to fewer than 25 people. Most worship services exceed that number, which some worry could result in some people being turned away at the door.

That doesn’t fit with the philosophy of open doors and inclusivity, said several local religious leaders.

Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill said it will continue to offer its programs, classes and services on Zoom and through live streams. It moved these services online at the end of March.

“Keeping people safe and healthy and alive really is a paramount value in Judiasm,” Rabbi Jamie Gibson said. “We’ve found that we’re actually able to create community – even though it’s a two-dimensional community – by being online.”

Read more from local religious leaders.

9:01 a.m. - What you missed over the weekend

  • Pennsylvania Department of Health reports 730 positive cases, bringing the total to 67,713. Twenty-eight more people have died.
  • Allegheny County logs 24 news cases for a total of 1,777. No new deaths in the county.
  • Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday he is easing some pandemic restrictions in Philadelphia and the heavily populated suburbs on June 5, while lifting them almost entirely in 17 rural counties next week as Pennsylvania continues to emerge from a shutdown imposed nearly two months ago to help slow the spread of the new virus.

    Wolf is accelerating his reopening plan even though more than 20 Pennsylvania counties remain above the state's target for new infections that were supposed to qualify them for an easing of pandemic restrictions — and eight counties are more than three times over.