Pennsylvania will ease some restrictions on building construction and vehicle sales, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday as hundreds of protesters defied a ban on mass gatherings to stage an anti-shutdown rally at the Capitol.
Wolf announced a first, tentative step toward reopening the state’s economy after weeks of social distancing to combat the new virus, which has killed more than 1,200 Pennsylvania residents and sickened more than 33,000.
Wolf said he is signing online-notary legislation that will pave the way for online vehicle sales. And limited building construction work may resume on May 8, he said.
“We are taking small steps toward regaining a degree of normalcy in Pennsylvania,” Wolf said.
As he spoke, protesters gathered outside the state Capitol to demand that Wolf reopen the state's virus-battered economy.
Flag-waving protesters — some with masks, some without — ignored social distancing guidelines to call on Wolf to end the shutdown of businesses deemed nonessential and to get nearly 1.4 million Pennsylvanians back to work. Others protesters drove around the block, horns blaring.
Kevin Depaulis, 55, a salesman in York Springs who expects to lose 40% of his income this year, said he was rallying to “end this nonsense,” adding that it should be up to local leaders to decide whether it's safe for businesses to reopen.
Some GOP lawmakers also attended the protest outside the Capitol, which was organized or promoted by several groups that recently popped up on Facebook, including one connected to a low-profile gun-rights group. It was one of several similar protests in state capitals around the nation.
Wolf and his health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, have said that protesters would risk spreading the virus by gathering.
Meanwhile, both chambers of the Republican-controlled Legislature were planning to return to session as Republicans push legislation that would take away some of Wolf's power to determine which businesses must remain closed during the coronavirus pandemic. Wolf, a Democrat, has said he will veto one bill sent to him last week and another that is expected to win House passage as early as Monday.
On Friday, Wolf said Pennsylvania has managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic and laid out a “framework” for a gradual reopening of the state’s economy, with more details to come this week. But he said that serious obstacles remain, including a national shortage of coronavirus testing materials and the continued spread of the virus.
Wolf has said he would rely on an “evidence-based, regional approach” guided by health experts and economists that will help him decide when it’s safe.
Other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania:
Many commercial buildings that serve the public are now required to make sure customers wear masks — and deny entry to anyone who refuses without a medically valid reason — under an order signed last week by Wolf's health secretary.
The order, which took effect Sunday night, is meant to protect critical workers who can’t stay home and are at heightened risk of contracting the new coronavirus, Wolf has said.
Workers at places including supermarkets, home improvement centers, warehouses, manufacturing facilities and other businesses that remain open during the pandemic also must wear a mask.
The mask mandate was included in a wide-ranging order that governs many aspects of how a business operates, from how it arranges its break room to how many patrons it can allow inside at any one time.
Business owners and managers who discover an exposure to someone who is infected must follow certain protocols, including deep cleaning of the premises and temperature checks of employees before they enter. Employees must be sent home if they have a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher.
Wolf previously closed schools and businesses deemed nonessential, and ordered residents to stay home unless making a trip related to health, safety or some other life necessity.
LIQUOR STORES BEGIN CURBSIDE PICKUP
The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board began telephone orders by curbside pickup at more than 175 of the state’s 600 stores Monday. Each customer is limited to no more than six bottles.
The move follows Wolf's unpopular closure of the state-owned liquor stores. The state's online ordering system has been unable to keep up with overwhelming consumer demand.
The liquor board, which has a virtual monopoly on retail sales of hard alcohol in Pennsylvania, has been repurposing some of the stores to help fulfill online orders.
Under the curbside pickup program, each store will take orders by phone from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. — or until the store reaches the maximum number of orders it can fill that day — Monday through Saturday.
Producers, breweries, wineries and distilleries, and privately owned beer distributorships have been permitted to sell during the business shutdown. Beer and wine is also available at grocery stores and convenience stores.
Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 death toll rose by 92 to 1,204, the state health department reported Monday, with nearly 950 additional people testing positive for the new coronavirus.
It was the first time since April 1 that health officials reported fewer than 1,000 new virus cases, a sign the pandemic's grip might be easing. Health officials have said that social distancing measures have worked to slow the virus's spread.
Statewide, more than 33,200 people have tested positive, according to the latest health department statistics.
The virus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people but more severe illness for some, including older adults and people with existing health problems.