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, according to data released Monday, as the state reported more virus cases and deaths.
The state exceeded 283,000 jobless claims last week, pushing Pennsylvania past 1 million in the three weeks since businesses began shutting down to help stop the spread of COVID-19. The state's swelling ranks of jobless account for an outsized portion of the nationwide toll.
Even as the economic devastation came into sharper focus, there was a glimmer of good news on the health front: The number of new virus cases and deaths reported by the state health department did not set single-day records in either category.
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Gov. Tom Wolf warned that a “surge is coming," but expressed some optimism 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 has become 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.
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 in Pennsylvania's civilian labor force in February.
Money has started flowing to about half the people who filed, state Labor and Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak said Monday.
Wolf apologized for the claims backlog and said the state is working to speed things up.
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.
INMATE RELEASE PROPOSALS
Pennsylvania’s top prison official said the administration may act on its own if lawmakers don't approve a measure to release inmates.
Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said Monday in a letter to lawmakers that if acceptable legislation does not pass this week, he will recommend that Wolf, a Democrat, use his power of reprieve to thin the inmate population and reduce the risk of virus outbreaks.
A House GOP spokesman said the chamber has no plans to consider the legislation sought by Wolf.
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.
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.
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.
A state House committee passed legislation to force the Wolf administration to allow construction and retail firms to resume limited operations.
Wolf ordered “non-life-sustaining” businesses to close indefinitely during the pandemic. The order bars construction, unless it is on health care facilities or for emergency repairs. Retails operations are also shut down, unless they sell “life-sustaining” products 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.
Democrats opposed the GOP-backed bills, saying they would threaten lives 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.