HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday set May 8 as the date he wants to begin easing some pandemic restrictions, saying Pennsylvania had made sufficient progress against COVID-19 to warrant a gradual reopening of the economy.
All 12.8 million Pennsylvanians will have to stay home at least through that date, said Wolf, extending his existing stay-at-home order by another eight days. But he suggested it might then be lifted in areas of the state where the coronavirus — which has killed more than 1,200 Pennsylvania residents — does not pose as great of a threat.
Pennsylvania will also ease some restrictions on building construction and vehicle sales, Wolf announced at a video news conference as hundreds of protesters, defying a ban on mass gatherings, staged an anti-shutdown rally at the Capitol.
“We are taking small steps toward regaining a degree of normalcy in Pennsylvania,” Wolf said. He suggested that more businesses might be allowed to reopen in early May if Pennsylvania continues to make gains in its fight against the virus.
As Wolf spoke, flag-waving protesters — some with masks, some without — ignored social distancing guidelines to call on him to end the shutdown of businesses deemed nonessential and to get 1.5 million unemployed Pennsylvanians back to work. Other 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, which was organized and promoted by several groups that recently popped up on Facebook, including one connected to an obscure gun-rights organization. Police were there in force but allowed the rally to go off as planned. It was one of several similar protests in state capitals around the nation.
Wolf, a Democrat, is moving more cautiously than some Republican governors who are pushing quicker restarts.
GOP state lawmakers have been pushing legislation that would take away some of Wolf’s power to determine which businesses must remain closed during the pandemic. Wolf on Monday vetoed a bill sent to him last week and has said he will veto another that was approved by the Senate last week, but had a particularly objectionable provision stripped out in the House on Monday.
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 to reopen.
On Monday he signed online-notary legislation that will pave the way for online vehicle sales. Limited building construction work may resume on May 8, he said. More industry sectors might be opened by then, depending on the availability of virus testing and the capacity of the health care system, Wolf said.
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 it reaches the maximum 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.
REMOTE MEETINGS LAW
Wolf signed a bill Monday that permits municipalities to hold hearings, meetings and other business remotely, through telecommunications devices, for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency.
To the extent possible, political subdivisions should provide advance notice of such meetings on their websites or in local newspapers, and tell the public how to monitor them. The governmental bodies are supposed to provide a means of getting public feedback, including mailed comments.