More than 1 million Pennsylvania residents have filed unemployment compensation claims since the coronavirus began taking a severe toll on the economy in mid-March, as the state Department of Health on Monday reported more cases and more virus-related deaths.
The state exceeded 283,000 jobless claims last week, pushing Pennsylvania past 1 million in the three weeks since the state began pressing for business shutdowns to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
There was a glimmer of good news, as the number of new virus cases and deaths reported by the state Department of Health did not set a new high in either category.
Gov. Tom Wolf warned that a “surge is coming," but expressed some optimism Monday that his worst fears may be avoided.
“We are starting to see that the early exponential increase in cases has given way to a much flatter (curve), so the surge may not be as great as we once anticipated, that's our fervent hope," Wolf said at a video news conference.
However, he also said that success depends on people staying home — and state police said Monday that troopers have started enforcing the governor's statewide stay-at-home order.
One Pennsylvania mayor became so frustrated with residents' failure to adhere to social distancing guidelines — and so alarmed by a huge increase in virus cases in his area — that he began enforcing a curfew over the weekend.
Also Monday, top Republicans in the state House of Representatives pressed legislation to force Wolf to loosen restrictions on construction and retail operations.
Monday's coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania:
From March 16 through Sunday, more than 1.1 million Pennsylvanians filed for unemployment benefits. That's about one-sixth of the nearly 6.6 million people that Pennsylvania reported being in the civilian labor force in February.
Over 540,000 people have received benefits, state Labor and Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak said Monday.
Unemployment compensation claims in Pennsylvania peaked at almost 406,000 in the week ending March 28, an all-time high in the state. That figure was second in the nation to California.
About 4,550 employees of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board will join another roughly 9,000 state employees who are going on unpaid leave after Friday, an agency spokeswoman said.
The employees keep their health insurance and have the option to use sick leave and vacation days, or file for unemployment benefits.
Pennsylvania State Police have issued six warnings and one citation since Wolf’s statewide stay-at-home order took effect at 8 p.m. Wednesday, the agency said Monday.
Residents may leave their homes for a number of reasons that include working at a business that’s still open, going to the grocery store or pharmacy, visiting a doctor, caring for a relative or heading outside to exercise. Otherwise, they are under orders to remain at home.
The governor’s office has said that police would focus on informing residents of the order rather than on enforcement.
Hazleton, a northeastern Pennsylvania city of about 25,000 people, began enforcing a curfew Saturday night in response to an alarming rise in virus cases.
Hazleton Mayor Jeff Cusat told The Associated Press on Monday that, by his count, 763 people in the city and suburbs had contracted the virus. He said his numbers come from hospitals and other health providers in the area.
Many Hazleton residents who have tested positive for the virus are originally from New York and New Jersey, still have out-of-state driver’s licenses, and thus are not included in the official Pennsylvania case count, Cusat said.
“I don’t think at the beginning that people believed Hazleton was affected the way it was,” he said. “A lot of things went unheeded.”
John Fletcher, president of Lehigh Valley Hospital-Hazleton, said last week that too many people in the Hazleton area have been ignoring calls to stay away from each other and to avoid unnecessary travel. He cited data from an analytics firm that grades states and counties on social distancing based on how much they’ve reduced their travel.
The state Department of Health reported 1,470 more coronavirus cases, bringing the statewide total to 12,980 in 65 of 67 counties. The department also reported 12 more deaths, for a statewide total of 162.
Philadelphia reported the first coronavirus-related death of a police officer, Lt. James Walker, who died Sunday. In a statement, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney called Walker, 59, “a friend, a family member, a hero.” The Montgomery County coroner confirmed his death at a hospital.
Officials say most hospitalizations and deaths have occurred in patients aged 65 or older. There have been no pediatric deaths to date, officials said.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
Legislation to force Wolf’s administration to allow construction and retail operations to resume on a limited basis advanced out of the GOP-controlled State Government Committee on party-line votes.
Wolf has ordered “non-life-sustaining” businesses to close indefinitely while the state tries to contain the virus. The order bars construction, unless it is on health care facilities or for emergency repairs. Retails operations are shut down, unless they sell “life-sustaining” goods, such as food, hardware or prescription drugs.
The committee's chairman, Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, said the closures threaten Pennsylvania's economy.
“I believe the balance has gone too far, and we need to find something in the middle,” Everett said.
One bill would let construction continue if it can adhere to social distancing practices and other measures defined by the Centers for Disease Control to mitigate the spread of the virus, although the bill contains no way to measure compliance.
The other measure would let retail operations open if they can handle one customer at a time by a single worker.
Democrats opposed the bills, saying they would threaten the lives of workers and undermine efforts to slow the spread of the virus. Wolf's administration suggested that letting up now could make things worse.
The state established a waiver process for companies that believe they should be exempt from the shutdown order. About 4% of all Pennsylvania businesses applied for exemptions, officials said Monday.
The Department of Community and Economic Development said it received 42,380 waiver requests by Friday's application deadline. It has approved about 7,000 requests so far and denied over 13,000, spokeswoman Rachel Wrigley said Monday. The agency is processing the remainder of the applications.
Wolf also has ordered schools closed indefinitely, and ordered residents to stay at home, except for necessary trips to a business that is still open, going to the grocery store or pharmacy, visiting a doctor, caring for a relative or heading outside to exercise.