coronavirus

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania reported its first death from the new coronavirus on Wednesday as state officials announced a nearly 40% jump in the number of confirmed cases and Gov. Tom Wolf issued a stark new warning about the pandemic.

The state Department of Health identified the victim as an adult from Northampton County and said the person was treated at a hospital. No other details were released.

Wolf implored Pennsylvania residents to stay home, calling it a matter of life or death.

“Every day that goes by that people continue to freely interact is a day that the virus continues to unknowingly infect more and more people,” he said. “Today’s is just the first death of what will become many, and our only hope is to keep our hospitals from being overwhelmed. ... We need to stay home if we want to save lives."

His administration, meanwhile, promised a crackdown on bars and restaurants that fail to adhere to Wolf's order to stop serving food and drink on-site.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board said any retail liquor license holder that continues to offer dine-in service after 8 p.m. Wednesday could face state police enforcement as well as a suspension of its operating license.

“Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures, and this decision is not made lightly. But saving lives and protecting the health and safety of our communities is our highest priority right now," said liquor board chairman Tim Holden.

Confirmed cases in Pennsylvania topped 130 as of Wednesday, rising by 37, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. About two-thirds of confirmed cases have been in southeastern Pennsylvania. The majority of testing is now being done by private labs.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.

COURTS CLOSE

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered all state courts to shut down by the close of business Thursday until at least April 3, although the justices laid out numerous exceptions, including hearings for emergency bail review, protection from abuse and emergency petitions for child custody.

The high court also temporarily halted evictions.

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ECONOMIC IMPACT

As the nation's economic crisis deepened, the state Department of Labor and Industry said unemployment compensation claims exceeded 70,000 on Tuesday alone after hitting 50,000 on Monday. In the entire first week of March, the state received barely 12,000 claims, according to federal data.

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PHILADELPHIA POLICE CHANGE ARREST POLICY

Philadelphia police announced that officers will stop taking nonviolent offenders into physical custody.

The department said those offenders who are placed under arrest will be released once their identities are confirmed. From there, they'll be issued the equivalent of a summons.

The city’s new police commissioner, Danielle Outlaw, said Wednesday that “the department is not turning a blind eye to crime” and will continue to enforce all laws. She said the department is taking the action in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

Officers will continue to have discretion if they believe the suspect poses a threat to public safety.

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PENN STATE CANCELS

Penn State University canceled in-person classes for the rest of the spring semester, citing the coronavirus pandemic, and postponed commencement.

Penn State had previously planned to resume live classroom instruction on April 6 but said it needed to take more dramatic action “based on on evolving federal guidance and statewide mitigation plans" to deal with the virus threat.

The school said the classroom closure impacts about 76,000 students at the main campus and 21 satellite campuses.

The university’s president, Eric J. Barron, said the school will honor its graduates in some form.

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SHELL PLANT SHUTDOWN

Under mounting pressure from state and local officials, Shell announced it is suspending construction at its massive manufacturing complex in western Pennsylvania.

The company said Wednesday that it’s temporarily halting work at its soon-to-be-completed ethane cracker in Monaca that will turn the area’s vast natural gas deposits into plastics. The shutdown takes effect immediately.

Earlier Wednesday, several state lawmakers and Beaver County officials appeared at a news conference to urge Shell to take action. Workers have complained of unsanitary conditions around the plant.

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GUN SALES SURGE

Pennsylvania's state-run background check system for gun purchases processed more than 4,300 transactions on Tuesday, about three times its typical daily rate.

State police said Wednesday the numbers were high even though the system had two computer outages of more than three hours apiece on Tuesday.

Guns and ammunition have been flying off store shelves nationwide.

A gun store in the Philadelphia suburbs limited occupancy to 10 customers at a time and said it was taking people an hour or two to get in.

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TRUCKERS GET RELIEF

Pennsylvania's highway department is opening up portions of 13 of its 30 rest areas for use by truck drivers, following concerns that the blanket closures would cripple truck traffic and endanger safety.

The Transportation Department had closed all of its welcome centers and rest areas as of Tuesday. It said Wednesday that trucks will be able to park at the 13 locations and that portable toilets will be available.

The agency will post electronic signs for rest stops along Interstate 81 in Luzerne and Cumberland counties; Interstate 80 in Venango, Centre and Montour counties; and Interstate 79 in Crawford and Allegheny counties.

The welcome centers will remain closed.

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Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. Associated Press reporters Marc Levy in Harrisburg and Ron Todt in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

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