Deadline looms for Pennsylvania virus-shutdown waivers

UPDATED: 5 p.m. 

By Michael Rubinkam(AP) — Pennsylvania businesses are running out of time if they want an exemption from Gov. Tom Wolf's shutdown order as state health officials on Thursday reported more than 1,200 new cases of COVID-19.

Wolf ordered all "non-life-sustaining" businesses to shutter their physical locations until further notice to help slow the spread of the coronavirus but established a waiver process for companies that believe they should be exempt.

The Wolf administration announced a deadline of 5 p.m. Friday for waiver applications, prompting an outcry from small-business advocates who said the deadline was premature and would create additional hardship for struggling employers.

"There has been a huge waiting list for waivers, and it is important not to prohibit a necessary business from playing a role in the emergency," said Gordon Denlinger, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. "We are asking Gov. Wolf to reconsider the shutdown of the waiver program."

The state received more than 34,000 waiver requests through Wednesday. The Department of Community and Economic Development has approved more than 5,600 requests and denied at least 8,600. More than 8,100 requests were filed by businesses that did not need them to continue to operate, agency spokeswoman Casey Smith said Thursday.

Businesses that remain open to the public include grocery stores, pharmacies, hotels and motels, beer distributors, laundromats, and gas stations. Restaurants are open only for take-out orders. The open list also includes farms, mines, food production and some manufacturing.

Car dealers, clothing stores and other retailers, salons, and entertainment venues are among those on the shuttered list.

Through Wednesday, Pennsylvania State Police issued 136 warnings to businesses violating the shutdown order. No business has been cited.

In other coronavirus developments Thursday:Cases 

The Pennsylvania Department of Health reported over 1,200 additional people tested positive for the virus, bringing the total to over 7,000. There were 16 new deaths for a statewide toll of 90.

The virus has now reached into the most rural parts of Pennsylvania. Cameron County, the state's smallest with about 4,450 residents, reported its first death.

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.

Online liquor store overwhelmedAs expected, demand far exceeded the capacity of Pennsylvania's system of state-owned liquor stores to process online orders as sales resumed Wednesday.

Brick-and-mortar liquor stores are closed because of the pandemic, but nearly 278,000 people tried to place orders on the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board website during the first day of digital sales. By comparison, the site attracted 32,300 users when the liquor agency recently released several sought-after but limited-availability whiskeys.

"As we expected, consumer interest and site traffic far exceeded our ability to accept orders," a spokeswoman said Thursday.

For now, the state is limiting website access to prevent the system from crashing, giving only a limited number of randomly selected consumers access to shop. All others get a screen indicating the online store is closed.

Gun permit extension

Pennsylvania residents will be allowed to carry guns on expired permits.

Wolf granted an extension for holders of concealed carry permits. State police said that permits that expired March 19 or later have been extended to May 30. The extension was granted because some county courthouses are closed because of the pandemic.

Walmart warehouse closed Walmart has temporarily closed a Pennsylvania fulfillment center after workers tested positive for the virus.

The retailer said it closed the center in Bethlehem on Wednesday night so it can be cleaned and sanitized. The center, which processes online orders and employs nearly 1,800, will be closed until Monday, said Walmart spokesman Kory Lundberg.

When workers return, Walmart will provide gloves and masks and take employees' temperatures before they begin their shifts, part of a new policy announced by the retail giant for all its stores and warehouses, according to Lundberg.

Workers have expressed grave concern about the conditions in Bethlehem, saying that they have been forced to operate in tight quarters and that the facility wasn't being cleaned properly.

Bucks County gets shipment of protective equipment 

Bucks County has had more than 400 positive coronavirus cases so far, and six deaths in the county are connected to the virus.

Bucks County health director Dr. David Damsker said while they have 400 positive tests, they know the actual number is much higher.

“From our interviews with cases who have family and friends with very similar symptoms, so the number of cases in Bucks County is much higher than we’ve confirmed,” Damsker said.

He said that’s not unique to Bucks County. Every city, county or state is dealing with that.

Damsker said they have 10 people in the county currently on ventilators, and they’ll continue to update their ventilator numbers.

“We’ve had people come off ventilators, we’ve had between 50 to 60 people come off full isolation, people who are doing just fine off our original cases, he explained. 

Surge plans are in place to expand hospital capabilities, but at this point, that’s not necessary as he said county hospitals have done a great job planning. 

“There’s several hundred hospital beds available, dozens of ICU beds available in Bucks, so I think the hospitals are busy, I think they’ve seen an increase for sure. I think they’re planning on opening certain things like having a special COVID-19 wing where they can cohort patients together so they can use the same PPE for all the patients, everyone going in that unit,” he added.

Bucks County director of emergency services Scott Forster said while they did get a shipment of protective equipment that included 20,000 masks, they are still trying to get more.

“It has been very difficult to acquire the stuff we’ve been able to purchase and it’s been very difficult to get actual pieces of the strategic national stockpile because it’s very competitive across the entire nation,” he said. 

Bucks County officials say one way to extend the life of protective equipment is for hospitals to group COVID-19 symptoms together, so workers don’t have to keep changing their equipment.

Montgomery County keeping a close eye on numbers 

Montgomery County is reporting two more deaths connected to the coronavirus, bringing the total to 12. The county is reporting 113 new positive tests, bringing the total of cases to more than 700.

Montgomery County commissioner Val Arkoosh said the number of reported positive cases each day can vary depending what labs report which tests when.

But, she said, there is a number they’re watching closely as an indicator: The percentage of how many tests from the county’s community-based testing site are coming back positive each day.

“If we do start to see an increase in our number of cases that would represent a surge, what we’re going to start to see is the number of cases that are positive each day starts to increase,” she explained. 

She said so far, that number remains at about 13% to 15% positive each day.

Officials are looking at modeling that indicates the peak of cases will likely be mid-April, but she noted the peak for the need for hospital beds would likely trail that by about a week.

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KYW Newsradio's Jim Melwert contributed to this report.